The High Cost of Indonesia’s Fires

Burning forests take steep toll on climate and human health

Enormous fires have been burning for several months on the Indonesian side of Borneo, and on Sumatra. The resulting haze has been a catastrophe for the region, with severe impacts for human health and wildlife. The fires are also a climate disaster, resulting in 1.62 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions so far this year — triple Indonesia’s normal annual output.

Photo of Indonesia HazePhoto by CIFOR Smoke from peatland fires turns the sky a yellow hue in Indonesia.

“The haze is a humanitarian disaster caused by a man-made environmental crisis, and threatens the health of millions,” said Annisa Rahmawati, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia. “Decades of destruction have turned Indonesia’s forests and peatlands into a ticking climate bomb.”

Indonesia’s tropical forests are one of the world’s three major “lungs,” along with the Amazon and Congo river basins, sucking up vast amounts of carbon and emitting oxygen. The Indonesian forests also support immense biodiversity — 10 percent of the world’s known plant species, 12 percent of mammal species, and 17 percent of all known bird species can be found on the archipelago. This biodiversity is exhibited in beautiful ways. For example, Sumatra is the only place on the planet where rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans all live alongside each other.

Critical to this rich landscape are Indonesia’s peatland swamp forests, which form in moist soil that prevents organic material from fully decomposing. These peat bogs and swaps, though less biodiverse than other tropical forests, contain some of the densest carbon stock in the world. They are a critical component of the natural carbon sink in Southeast Asian forests and regulate climate globally.

Unfortunately, tropical rainforests and peatlands across Indonesia have been burning since August. With more than 130,000 fire hotspots detected so far, the scale of the fires is unprecedented.

So why are we seeing such bad fires this year? In short, timber and palm oil development, exacerbated by the fact that El Niño has prolonged the dry season.

“Companies destroying forests and draining peatland have made Indonesia’s landscape into a huge carbon bomb, and the drought has given it a thousand fuses,” Bustar Maitar, Indonesian forest project leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said in a statement.

Fires are not a common part of the ecological cycle in Indonesia, and according to sources on the ground in Sumatra, did not frequently occur before 1997. Not coincidentally, that is when the palm oil and pulp booms transformed the landscape.

“There is no natural fire there — it is all caused by people,” said Dr. Robert Field, a fires expert at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Fire is completely preventable.”

Indonesia, is the global leader in terms of palm oil, pulpwood, and timber production, and fires are used to clear the land and make way for agricultural produftion. The driving force behind this destructive system is foreign demand. In the United States, palm oil is being used by companies including PepsiCo, Nissin, and Frito Lay as an alternative to hydrogenated oils. In Europe, it is used as a biofuel. Today, the biggest markets for palm are China and India.

Of course, there are other ways to clear forest, but fire is often cheaper — set a fire and then nature takes over. Fires also provide an opportunity for land grabs in Indonesia, adding an additional incentive for those who want land. Due to restrictions on deforestation, pristine forests are more difficult to legally convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forest and peat? It becomes “degraded land” that is ripe for agricultural production. Greenpeace has already observed this pattern of land grabbing on recently-burned land in Borneo.

“Fire is mostly due to social politics rather than through biophysical causes, but the actions enacted by [the Indonesian] Government focus mostly on fighting fire, not the underlying causes — poverty, conflict, and large companies,” said Herry Purmono, a scientist of forest governance at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, and a Professor at Bogor Agricultural University.

When you really dig in, fire isn’t cheap at all. It has expensive externalitieis, most obviously the haze and smoke. These costs are not borne by those burning the land, but instead are passed on

to the entire region. The haze has caused respriatory problems in more than 500,000 people. The ultimate toll on wildlife is not yet known, though scientists believe that the impact on endangered species like the orangutan and Sumatran elephant might be severe.

And then there are the carbon emissions. Since September, the daily emissions in Indonesia have exceded the daily emissions of the entire US economy. So far, Indonesia has moved from being the sixth largest emitter in the world to the fourth largest.

Consider also the estimated $50 million per day spent on firefighting in October, not to mention the $14 billion in estimated negative economic and tourist impacts from the fire. This money could have been better used towards ecosystems restoration and forest preservation.

If the true costs of deforestation were factored into the cost of palm oil, it would no longer be such a cheap alternative. Any long-term solution to the fire problem neccesiates a strong push for sustainable palm oil and pulpwood supply chains.

“From now on, there must be a unanimous agreement that any company putting lives at risk by clearing forests will be unable to sell its products,” said Longgena Ginting with Greenpeace Indonesia. “Companies that ignore the warnings and continue to destroy forests and peatlands must be held responsible for fires and haze engulfing Southeast Asia.”

The fires are expected to burn into January, and beyond that, local NGOs are pushing for ecosystems restoration and a ban on development on peatlands. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has pledged to create a new agency that would rehabilitate degraded land and prohibit planting on peatlands. This, more than anything, will help prevent future fires from burning. In the end, though, to truly make a difference, the global economic system must be transformed to value forests, biodiversity, and clean air more than corporate profits.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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