As you read this, an ecological disaster on a massive scale is happening. For months, Indonesia has been literally burning–a massive forest fire of near-biblical proportions is charging across vast tracts of land, blanketing the area with smoke so thick that people are dying. George Monbiot of The Guardian called it “almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century.” And what are we talking about? Starbucks’ red cup debacle and the unhealthiness of bacon. As people who surf, Indonesia is a veritable playground, and to ignore its violent destruction is, quite simply, not ok.
The haze from the fires burning tens of thousands of hectares has reached as far as Malaysia and Singapore, where, according to The Guardian, the fires are being called a “crime against humanity.” Six Indonesian provinces have declared a state of emergency, and in Sumatra, the PSI level (Pollutant Standard Index, where 300 is dangerous), is currently hovering at around 2000. According to WRI, “since September (the fires) have generated emissions each day exceeding the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity.” As of November 12, 19 people have died, somewhere around half a million cases of respiratory tract infections have been reported, and the Indonesian government has estimated that the cost of fighting the fires may be as high as almost 475 trillion rupiah, which works out to somewhere around $50 billion.
Each year, Indonesia faces a similar problem: plantation owners torch entire forests to make room for things like palm oil, and each year, a thick, choking haze drops over the communities nearby. The plantation companies are making room for their crops–generally monocultures, which bring their own set of problems–but this year is different. El Niño has robbed the area of much of its annual moisture, and the area is so dry that the earth itself is burning. Since much of the peat moss has had water-drainage systems cut through it, it is already unusually parched. When peat burns, it burns for an extraordinary amount of time–peat fires can burn for months, or even years, smoldering underground, nearly impossible to extinguish, releasing great clouds of noxious smoke. “In their undisturbed, flooded state, peatland forests are naturally fire-resistant,” Mark Harrison, director of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project told The Guardian. “But decades of poor peatland management practices, including extensive forest clearance and canal construction, has drained the peat, putting the whole region at high fire risk when the inevitable droughts occur.”
Perhaps one of the most devastating effects of the fires is the loss of animal life. The forests of Indonesia and Sumatra are some of the most diverse on the planet. While slash and burn practices have been threatening the forests and the incredible amount of creatures that call them home for years, this particular set of fires is wreaking more havoc than ever before. In previous years, the brunt of the fires were contained to plantations. This year, however, thousands of fires are burning in national parks, threatening already endangered species like the orangutan and the clouded leopard, among many others. Inside Borneo’s Sabangau Forest, for example, nearly a third of the world’s population of wild orangutans are in very serious danger.
So who’s to blame? It’s a complicated subject–of course, at first glance plantation owners and farmers are the most obvious culprits. They were the ones, after all, who lit the fires. But there are much deeper problems at the root of it. As it stands right now, the Indonesian government seems to want to stop the fires (they’ve thrown some 22,000 firefighters, 30 aircrafts, and positioned warships for evacuation if necessary), but at the same time, they’re subsidizing palm oil companies, hoping to further develop the country. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, and as their economy struggles, the government is desperate to stay afloat. To be fair to some of the palm oil companies, under public pressure, a handful have pledged to stop burning. The government, however, seemed to take offense to the pledges, saying “it hurts farmers, usurps the government’s authority and might constitute a cartel dominated by foreign interests.” Mixed messages, to be sure.
Sadly, the situation is so dire it has basically turned into a waiting game. As with many large forest fires, the purpose of “fighting” them isn’t to put them out, but to contain them until nature runs its course. There can be something done in the future, though, and it’s reasonably simple: slash and burn practices need to come to a screeching halt. But even that simple act gets a little convoluted. The government’s hesitance to assign blame and mete out punishment (although seven executives were arrested in September for their connection to the burning) on a larger scale is crippling any efforts to stop the land-clearing practice. Meanwhile, the rest of the world largely ignores a situation that should be demanding attention.