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‘The earth in Indonesia is on fire’

Indonesian peat forest

Indonesia's beautiful peat swamp forests are under increased threat from unscrupulous corporations wanting to clear the land to grow cash crops. Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia under a Creative Commons Licence

Some of the most severe fires in human history are burning right now in Indonesia, creating an environmental catastrophe in a region with precious biodiversity, and putting the health of tens of millions of people at risk.

‘The earth in Indonesia is on fire. 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,’ said Bustar Maitar, Indonesian Forest Project Leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Scientists now estimate that the fires will produce more CO2 emissions this year than the entire United Kingdom. Many are blaming El Niño, which is bringing dry conditions through much of Southeast Asia, but the truth is that the fires are almost 100% human caused, and directly benefit 2 of the world’s biggest industries – palm oil and pulp/paper.

From green to red

According to local NGOs, before 1997 fires were rare in Riau Province, the heart of palm-oil country today.

‘There is no natural fire there – it is all caused by people,’ said Robert Field, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University with expertise in Indonesian fires. ‘Fire is completely preventable.’

There’s a reason palm does not grow naturally in Indonesia. Much of Sumatra and Kalimantan are peatlands, naturally wet and swampy. Before palm arrived in Sumatra, brought as a cash crop by the Dutch, local people never planted on peat, living instead alongside rivers and on higher ground. Because palm requires dry land to grow, palm-oil plantation owners drained the peat, leaving the land in an unnaturally dry state. This dry state is a tinder box for fires.

Here’s the problem – Indonesia’s peatlands contain some of the densest carbon stock in the world. Peat forms a critical component of the natural carbon sink in Southeast Asian forests, regulating climate globally. Much like what we saw in 1991, when Saddam Hussein lit up oilfields in Kuwait which then burned for months, when a peat fires starts, it can be nearly impossible to put out.

Fire is a chief tool for clearing land to turn into corporate plantations, or for palm oil that often ends up in corporate supply chains

As Robert Field explained, ‘Water table levels [have begun] to drop and peat will begin to dry out... under these conditions there just can’t be any burning on peat.’

Palm-oil demand came from abroad. Initially, it was Europe in the early 2000s, where demand for biofuels as an alternative to gasoline expanded the market for Indonesian palm. Later, demand came from the US, where palm was seen as a quick, cheap replacement for hydrogenated oils, which were being slowly banned across the country. More recently, the driver is the growing demand for cooking oils in fast-growing China and India. Global companies that use palm oil that is likely sourced from deforestation include PepsiCo, General Mills and Kraft, as named by the US-based Rainforest Action Network.

This is global, multibillion-dollar business, run by giant companies. On the ground, fire is a chief tool for clearing land to turn into corporate plantations, or for palm oil that often ends up in corporate supply chains.

‘We must recognize that fire is mostly caused by people,’ said Herry Purmono, scientist of forest governance at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, and a Professor at Bogor Agricultural University. ‘Primarily, to transform land from forest to oil palm.’

Fires are probably the worst way to clear forest. But they are the cheapest, and they serve another function – a de-facto land grab. Pristine forests are difficult to convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forests? That’s another story.

Indonesia knew months beforehand that this would be an especially bad year for fires. Warning bells were sounded as early as March, when it became clear that we were in line for an especially strong El Niño.

‘I’m afraid that many will enjoy El Niño – because after burning they can claim the land, and then plant with acacia or palm,’ said Herry Purmono.

Despite this, efforts to take common-sense steps to mitigate fire risk – such as opening up canals that were draining peatland and strictly enforcing anti-burning bans – didn’t happen, as attested by the current massive fires spreading haze as far as Phuket, Thailand.

The victims are, not surprisingly, the poor, and locals. Pollution levels in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, make Beijing seem like a clean-air paradise. They hit 480 API (air pollution index) earlier this month, more than 10 times the acceptable level. The particulates being breathed by millions in Indonesia, and in neighbouring countries, could cause detrimental health effects with costs estimated in the billions by Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Already nearly 11,000 people die from pollution in Indonesia each year, much of it caused by fires. That number will likely rise.


Much needs to be done, especially in Indonesia, to hold accountable those responsible for the fires. There were signs that the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, was taking the fires more seriously than his predecessors when he took the unprecedented step of arresting several palm-oil executives who had fires raging on their concessions.

‘The government seems to be finally beginning to move. The problems have just got so bad,’ Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, told New Scientist in an interview.

‘The actions of the Indonesian government focus mostly on fighting fire, not the underlying causes – poverty, conflict and large companies’

But this is not just an Indonesian problem. It is a global problem, connected by supply chains and transnational corporations. Any effort to stem the fires needs a stronger push for truly sustainable supply chains and accountability on the demand side as well, beyond the headline-making but ineffective zero-deforestation pledges.

‘Unilateral no-deforestation policies are not working. Companies must eliminate the economic incentive to trash forests with an industry-wide ban on trade with anyone that clears forests,’ according to Bustar Maitar.

Singapore, which as the country closest to Indonesia faces dangerous haze levels, has begun removing from its grocery stores products from companies connected to the fires. If more countries did the same, this could have a powerful effect of forcing companies to think twice before letting fires encroach on their land, or from purchasing palm oil or pulp from those companies.

Another key is restoring the ecosystem and returning Indonesia’s tropical forests to a healthy state, as they were before 1997 when fires did not occur annually. Furthermore, there needs to be a greater recognition that stopping fires is more than firefighting, but a larger social and economic problem.

‘We recognize that fire is mostly due to social politics rather than biophysical causes,’ said Herry Purmono, ‘but that the actions of the [Indonesian] government focus mostly on fighting fire, not the underlying causes – poverty, conflict and large companies.’

That means changing how we think about disasters. Billions are pouring into firefighting right now, but a lot less money is spent on ecosystem restoration and forest preservation, which could have prevented the disaster. According to Andrew Schroeder of Relief Web, which works extensively in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, this is part of a larger problem whereby development money goes to disaster recovery rather than prevention. He says that USAID spend 30 times as much on disaster relief as it does on disaster preparedness: ‘This is a longstanding issue in the industry – it is a lot harder to raise funds for things that are ongoing than for things that haven’t happened yet.’

It remains to be seen whether the tragedy taking place across Southeast Asia translates into concrete action to transform the economic incentives that drive forest fires. Until then, Indonesia will keep on burning.


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