Slash and burn agriculture leads to smoke crisis of global proportions

In this NASA image smoke rises from hundreds of active fires across Borneo and Sumatra.

Rainfall this week has helped disperse haze in several regions of Indonesia severely affected by forest and peat fires. The Voice of America news service reports that the governor of Riau province in northern Sumatra said Wednesday a 90-minute rainfall cleared much of the smoke and improved visibility to a point where commercial airlines could again operate in the area.

But Luhut Panjaitan, coordinating minister of Politics, Law and Security, told reporters that much more rain is needed to help put out the massive fires. "This week we have rain. If we have intensive rain for four days consecutively and our water bombings continue, I hope next week we’d back to normal," he said.


More than 22,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to combat more than 1,600 fires spread across six provinces. For weeks, the fire haze has upset the life of ordinary people in various parts of the country. Transportation has been disrupted and schools have been closed.

According to Indonesia’s Health Ministry, at least 425,700 people have suffered respiratory problems because of the smoke. Environmental NGOs plan to sue the government, alleging officials have ignored the well-being of communities affected by the smoke

Indonesian authorities launched the country’s biggest operation to combat fires in late October with few tangible results. Indonesian officials are deploying civilian and military vessels to evacuate those endangered directly by the fires or those most vulnerable to the smoke. Passenger terminals, warehouses, and harbor facilities will be used to shelter haze refugees. "Crews, fuel, medical supplies and staff are ready,” a government official said. Evacuees will “receive medical care first. Later they will be moved within the island, eventually to other, safer islands. Local authorities will be in charge of ordering the evacuation.”

Environment Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states on Oct 29 expressed their concern over the "unprecedented severity and geographical spread" of the recent smoke haze affecting the region and expressed sympathy to the millions of people affected by the haze, and Indonesian Catholic leaders joined indigenous people and social groups to protest a lack of government action.

Holy Family Father Andreas Adi Tri Kurniawan, of the Palangkaraya Diocese's youth commission, told that residents have been affected by the haze for about three months, "but the condition worsened a few days ago," with the pollution standard index about 10 times higher than normal levels. He said the church had distributed more than 25,000 donated face masks to help local residents breathe.

Indonesian Catholic bishops have for weeks been urging stronger action from authorities to deal with the crisis. Last week they joined Catholic bishops around in the world in a demand for practical action from the December UN sponsored conference on climate change in Paris. At that conference Indonesian leaders will have to submit their plan for containing greenhouse gas emission. The emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra alone are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year, according to data published a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

By researcher Guido van der Werf’s calculations carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons—more than the annual emissions of Germany. Since the beginning of September, Indonesia’s fires have been emitting carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day, or more than the 14 million tons emitted on a daily basis by the entire U.S. economy.

The weeks of smoldering fires have claimed the lives of Indonesian children and adults vulnerable to respiratory distress, but they have perhaps have been hardest on the vast archipelago-nation’s wildlife. According to the Jakarta Globe, endangered orangutans are falling victim to the fires and smoke. If they are not trapped by the flames and burned to death, the constant smoke inhalation has left them sick and malnourished. Surviving orangutans have been severely traumatized as fires rage through Indonesia's forests, reducing their habitat to a charred wasteland. The Globe reports that rescuers at a center for the great apes on Borneo island are considering an unprecedented mass evacuation of the hundreds in their care and have deployed teams on hazardous missions to search for stricken animals in the wild.

According to NASA, which has been tracking the astonishing extent of the crisis as the smoke drifts across the region, fires in Indonesia are not like most other wildfires. “They are extremely difficult to extinguish and may smolder under the surface for long periods, often for months. Usually, firefighters can only put them out with the help of downpours during the rainy season. And they release far more smoke and air pollution than most other types of fires.”

NASA scientists report that the root cause of the persistent is large deposits of peat—a soil-like mixture of partly decayed plant material formed in wetlands—lining the coasts of Borneo and Sumatra.

Peat fires start to burn in Indonesia every year because farmers engage in “slash and burn agriculture,” a technique that involves frequent burning of rainforest to clear the way for crops or grazing animals. The fire starters are attempting to make room for new plantings of oil palm and acacia pulp. Indonesia has come under heavy pressure from its neighbors and environmental groups to crack down on the annual practice. Though illegal, the government has done little in the past to prevent the annual burning and many in Indonesian civil society complain of government complicity with plantation owners, small landholders or pulp companies.

“Most burning starts on idle, already-cleared peatlands and escapes underground into an endless source of fuel,” explained David Gaveau of the Center for International Forestry Research.

Scientists monitoring the fires are concerned that the problem will get worse before it gets better. That’s because strong El Niños, like the one currently brewing in the Pacific, lengthen the dry season and reduce the amount of rainfall. During a strong El Niño in 1997, the lack of rain allowed fires to burn out of control on a wide scale, releasing record levels of air pollution and greenhouse gases.

“We are on a similar trajectory to other bad years,” said Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Conditions in Singapore and southeastern Sumatra are tracking close to 1997, with some stations having visibility less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) on average for a week. In Kalimantan, there have been reports of visibility less than 50 meters (165 feet).”

Indonesia’s Social Affairs Minister Indar Parawansa announced this week that the government would compensate the families of those who died because of the smoky haze. Those entitled will receive death benefits in the form of a cash transfer of 15 million rupees (about U.S. $1,100) upon presentation of a medical certificate indicating that the victim died from respiratory problems associated with smog or other air pollution-related diseases.

So far, Indonesian authorities have recognized 19 such haze deaths in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the hardest hit areas. According to Minister Indar Parawansa, four families have already been compensated.

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