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Indonesian fires a “crime against humanity”, nature, and the global climate

Indonesian fires

Indonesia’s forest fires as seen from space. Courtesy of: NASA

A man-made firestorm continues to burn across Indonesia, putting the country on track to emit more carbon than the UK’s entire annual output, and pushing it up the list from the world’s sixth largest emitter to fourth in a matter of weeks.

With upwards of 4.2 million acres of forest and peatland now burned, the fires have been labelled a “crime against humanity”, as 99% of them have been deliberately lit by palm oil and paper companies illegally clearing land for production.

Visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres, and drifting smoke has provoked protests from neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Vast stores of CO2 in peatlands going up in smoke is terrible for the global climate and Indonesia’s reputation going into the Paris UN climate meeting.

But its role in both human and environmental destruction has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

Already responsible for at least 19 deaths, the fires are have made the air toxic, with pollution levels 6.5 times higher than levels considered hazardous on the Pollutant Standard Index.

An estimated 500,000 respiratory infections since July and 100,000 premature deaths are now being connected to the fires, and there are reports of miscarriages, premature deaths among babies, the elderly and infirm due to the smoke.

Even if brought under control, the risks for the fires will linger as peat fires can smoulder for months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide.

On top of this, the area being destroyed is a critical habitat for a third of world’s endangered wild orangutans and many other critical species.

Director of the UK-based research and conservation organisation Orangutan tropical peatland project, Mark Harriso said:

I dread to think what it will mean for orangutans. For them and other species, like the secretive clouded leopard and the iconic hornbill, the situation is dire and deteriorating by the day.

Every year, vast tracks of Indonesian forest and peatland is set alight, illegally, by companies seeking to profit from expanding their paper and palm oil empires.

Every year, these fires hurt Indonesia’s emissions reduction efforts.

Indonesian Forest Project Leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Bustar Maitar said:

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. These fires are a harsh reminder of the pulp and palm oil industry’s legacy of destruction. Companies need to rise to the challenge and work together to break the link between commodity production and forest destruction. 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 forest.

But this year is different. Fires like those currently tearing across the country’s rainforest and peatlands have not been seen for 20 years, as this year El Nino has created tinderbox conditions, allowing almost 10,000 fires to spin out of control across Kalimantan and Sumatra in the last month.

Despite the heavy toll on public health and nature, and the fact it has had to prepare emergency evacuations, the Indonesian Government continues to protect the companies responsible for the disaster.

It says that “economic considerations” mean it will not name the corporations suspected of involvement in starting the fires, essentially allowing them to get away with tens of billions in economic vandalism.

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