Indonesian Fires

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Sep 29, 2019

When we turn on the news or scroll through social networking sites, we can’t escape the troubling reality that many great forests are suffering massive fires, affecting the ecosystem and communities nearby. Hashtags are trending online because of this, like #PrayforAmazon, #PrayforSiberia, and the most chilling, #SaveThePlanet. The Amazon and Siberia are just among the many forest fires burning across the world. Greenpeace revealed the fire in Siberia have released more than 166 metric tons of CO2. 

The forest fire in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan bombarded the news and social media recently. It’s worth mentioning that the country just experienced heavy wildfires not long ago, which begs the question: is the world burning? 

Red Skies in Indonesia

Indonesia with red skies and polluted air

We are easily amazed by how the sky can change its color as it transitions from day into night. Occasionally, it would display colors of orange or pink. In Indonesia, the Island of Sumatra and Borneo have seen their skies turn red throughout the day. Looking at it through photos, it appears beautiful and alluring to the eye. However, it is very harmful to those who get to witness it up close. The somber mood set by the red skies in Indonesia’s Jambi province is caused by sunlight fragments through the dense smoke particles from the burning forest. The eerie copper haze has forcef'd schools to close and airlines to cancel flights as it proves to be dangerous for people. It is particularly targeting those with undeveloped immune systems, like children and the elderly. According to the United Nations, nearly 10 million children are at risk because of the air pollution caused by the Indonesian forest fire.

The Indonesian forest fires and the toxic haze are also affecting neighbor countries Malaysia and Singapore. There has been an increase in reports of respiratory illnesses in South-East Asia because of the forest fires. Singapore and Malaysia have taken a stand and criticized Indonesia’s government for not doing enough to handle the crisis. The countries have demanded a call for action. But, Indonesia claims the haze that reached Malaysia originated from Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia, further claiming no haze from Indonesia had traveled beyond its borders. Regardless, Indonesia’s forest fires have increased the country’s carbon emission three folds.

Indonesia claims the forest fires were caused by dry conditions across the country. However, scientists have proven slash and burn techniques and illegal land clearing by the palm oil industry contributed heavily to the intensity of fires.   

A similar incident in 2015

Indonesia went through a similar situation back in 2015, and it brought big economic losses to the country. Many palm oil plantations and mills delayed operation because of the haze and heat brought by the wildfires. The World Bank’s report showed almost $16 billion was spent on agriculture, forestry, trade, tourism, transportation, school closures, emergency response, and fire suppression costs. 

Since the Indonesian forest fire in 2015, the country has taken steps to ensure the incident never happens again. Indonesian President Joko Widodo suspended new permits for clearing forest and peatland for palm oil cultivation. The 2015 Indonesian forest fire also led to educational campaigns and stricter law enforcement against land clearing. But are they enough?

Aerial view of the Indonesian Fire

A country continues to suffer

Even after experiencing its worse fire in 2015, palm oil companies continue to slash and burn potent forests to make way for plantations. They take advantage of the hot weather for fast-burning, but the process often goes out of control and spreads into protected land. Indonesia’s annual forest fires may be a reminder of how insufficient and lacking the country’s laws are when it comes to policing and charging those causing the fires.

Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry spokesman Djati Witjaksono said they are working on not letting the forest fires reach the same level as the one that occurred in 2015, adding that they are doing whatever they can to extinguish the fires. But, in this case, merely combatting the fire does not seem to be enough. The slash and burn employed by plantation workers and owners have caused a great deal of damage to a country who has – not even five years later – suffered through so much loss and harm.

Numerous firefighters and water-bombing helicopters are now in the fire zone to extinguish the blaze. It does appear as though Indonesia is doing whatever it can to extinguish a fire that could have been easily prevented if they see through the fires of 2015, and made stricter laws to penalize and control the illegal slash and burn practices of palm oil companies.

Who is at fault?

Figuring out who is truly at fault is a question of the extent of a person’s responsibility. It’s true the Indonesian forest fire of 2015 wounded the country’s economy and its people’s health. But, how long can people feel bad about the events that transpired before they return to their usual practice. Indonesia’s anti-clearing laws and the moratorium on slashing and burning has not done much to attack and lessen the people doing it. 

Indonesia’s leniency towards palm oil industries seems to be driven by the fact that the country is the top exporter of palm oil in the world. The slash and burn technique is a strong economic incentive to clear land. But the technique comes at a devastating cost.

There are now calls to name and shame the companies caught slashing and burning in an attempt to stop them from doing it again. Indonesia refuses to do so and says enough evidence has been collected to launch legal action against them.

Every person has a responsibility to do whatever they can to fight and prevent the looming arrival of a burning world brought by climate change . All the science and facts are presented clearly, and how we react to it is significant. Hashtags and prayers can only do so much. It’s high time governments act and giant corporations do their part in the bigger picture. How will money and palm oil be important if the land they are sourced from will not be viable for production?

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