The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

Scientists have been warning for many months that the Asia-Pacific region will face 'Godzilla' this year -- a fire-breathing El Niño drought of frightening severity. 

Devastating air pollution from Indonesian forest and peatland fires -- especially in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea -- have become a virtually annual event.  Add a major El Niño drought to the mix -- as is happening now -- and the situation is inevitably a lot worse.

Predictably, the burning season this year has turned into an international disaster.  Among the more notable calamities:

- Because of the dense, choking smoke, schools and airports across large expanses of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have had to be repeatedly closed; Micronesia and the Philippines are also suffering.

- Hospitals in burning centers In Indonesia have reported large spikes in the number of people in respiratory distress, with medical authorities warning people not to go outside.

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

- Singapore has launched legal actions and arrested high-ranking employees from several forest-destroying corporations that are headquartered there, leading to a major diplomatic spat with Indonesia.

- This year, carbon pollution from rampaging Indonesian peat fires alone have exceeded the carbon emissions produced by the entire United States economy.

- Politicians in Indonesian Borneo recently wore face masks to Parliament, to protest the rampant fires, and have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian federal government.

- The respected Indonesian forest expert and ALERT member, Dr Erik Meijaard, has recently called the nation's fires the "biggest environmental crime of the twenty-first century".

Given such an environmental, social, and political crisis, the Indonesian government must be moving heaven and earth to fight the fires and set the nation on a better course, right?

Wrong. 

Rather than implementing a large-scale fire ban this year, the Joko Widodo government has vacillated, saying the fires are a "not a problem you can solve quickly" with "no easy solutions", opting instead for localized actions and belated half-measures.

In addition, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently established a new Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries.  High on the Council's agenda is dropping recent 'zero-deforestation' pledges made by a number of major forest-exploiting corporations, such as those that produce oil palm and wood pulp in Indonesia.  If successful, this will only worsen future fire crises.

Remarkably, Indonesia has a crucial tool available to it -- near-real-time data on fires and deforestation produced by Global Forest Watch.  With comparable data and the will to levy fines against those burning illegally, Brazil has been able to greatly reduce the number of illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

No nation today is destroying forest faster than Indonesia.  The Indonesian government can come up with any number of excuses -- many fires are lit by smallholders, corruption is rampant, land tenure is often uncertain. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Indonesian government has both the capacity and the authority to declare and enforce large-scale fire bans.  Huge inroads could be made, especially in drought years.

What the government has been lacking, so far, is the political will to do so.


Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

The year's top stories for tropical forests

Mongabay.com continues to show why it is the leading venue for news on tropical forests.  In a recent story, Mongabay founder Rhett Butler (one of ALERT's media advisors) provides a fantastically insightful summary of trends and events in 2013 that affected tropical forests globally.

If you want to keep abreast of tropical forest conservation, you really do need to read this incisive essay.