Indonesia faces a national crisis from raging wildfires


Indonesian forest fires, the haze of which has been drifting into Malaysia since September, have released more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire U.S. economy on at least 38 days in the last 2 months. Where many provinces in Indonesia have declared a state of emergency, including Jambi and West, South and Central Kalimantan, others hold their breath in the haze for the president to call a state of National Emergency. As the death count rises and more than 140,000 of Indonesia’s population suffers from respiratory illness, the country turns to the world for aid.

Last Monday, the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, cut short a visit with the Obama administration to return to his nation and supervise long-running attempts by service workers and humanitarians to put out the wildfires that rage across the country. The reason for the visit was to discuss climate change, an issue which Indonesia is late to but now keen to focus on.

Land use accounts for about one quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gas footprint. According to the World Research Institute, however, it accounts for 61 percent of Indonesia’s total emissions. This is mainly because Indonesia produces half of the world’s palm oil, a common form of vegetable oil used in countless processed products and cosmetics. As of 2014, Indonesia has 8 million hectares reserved for palm oil plantations.

“In a forest, most of the carbon is found in parts of the trees and in the soil,” Professor of Biology Brad Oberle said. “Tropical forests store tremendous amounts of carbon but that carbon is dynamic in the sense that there is always carbon coming into forests and there is always carbon leaving. It is exchanged quickly with the atmosphere as trees absorb carbon as they grow and lose carbon as they respire. When a forest burns, all the carbon stored is released back into the atmosphere. Once in the atmosphere, it traps heat on the planet causing it to get warmer.”

The wildfires plaguing Indonesia have been called the worst geographic disaster of the 21st century and a “crime against humanity.” But humanity is only one of the victims here; an unimaginable amount of wildlife is being destroyed in the now more than 4.2 million acres of burning forest. Some of the world’s rarest animals live here: from the endangered orangutan to Sumatran tigers and elephants to rhinoceros to an incredible variety of birds and insects. They, too, are suffering from the “crime against humanity.”

One factor that is helping the wildfires tighten their grip is that much of forests grow on peatland. Peat is a soil-like ground layer which is mostly decomposed matter high in carbon dioxide and methane. The fires in Indonesia have seeped under the slow burning peat and are constantly releasing the pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In early August of this year, Indonesia was absent at an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (ASEAN) meeting to discuss the haze issue for many Asian countries. With 100,000 fires still burning, Indonesia’s fire season this year has turned into the worst recorded since the last powerful El Niño year. Where strong El Niño years result in high rainfall in North American, it causes droughts across Southeast Asia.  

These droughts are intense and can deprive an entire forest of its water supply. Drought and wind set up an area highly hazardous for the practice of slash and burn agriculture common with palm oil companies and small-scale farmers in Indonesia. These conditions have been blamed as the fire’s spark. But in reality, much of the land in Indonesia has long been depleted by excess logging, monocrop culture and forest burning in preserved areas. The environment is simply not well protected against major palm oil companies and competing independent farmers.   

“The biggest driver in dehydrating a forest is actually cutting down trees because when you cut trees down it short circuits a forest’s water supply, making droughts when they start much worse,” Oberle said. Most trees make their own rainfall by cycling water through their roots, up their trunks and out onto their leaves where the water then evaporates in mists.

Oberle has done extensive research on the shooting star, a plant that used to cover regions in North America. As the climate warmed over centuries, individual plants began to die until it could only grow in particularly cool patches of land. That is essentially what is happening with trees in many areas: they are under stress in warm and dry conditions and since dead wood burns very quickly, these dying trees contribute to the potentiality of forest fires.

While Widodo reacts to the crisis in ways such as restricting any future development on peatland and terminating the permits for several palm oil companies suspected of contributing to the fires by logging in protected areas, the implications of the fires call for much more severe action. In fact, they call for preventive measures that would have ideally been put in place years ago.

The United States’ import of palm oil products has spiked from 174 metric tons in 2002 to 1,112 metric tons in 2014. Although the United States has sent $2.75 million in aid to help put out the fires in Indonesia, there is need and hope for much more.

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