Wildfires Cause Local Misery And Global Environmental Offense

FIRE HAZARD. Authorities evacuate a 19-year-old female orangutan from a burning forest near Sampit, Central Kalimantan, on Oct. 28.

Rainfall in late October helped disperse the choking haze overhanging several regions of Indonesia severely affected by forest and peat fires. But much more rain is needed to help put out the massive fires, Luhut Panjaitan, coordinating minister of Politics, Law and Security, told reporters. “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. 

For weeks, the fire haze has upset the lives of ordinary people in various parts of the country. Transportation has been disrupted and schools have been closed. In some provinces, the pollution level is 10 times the acceptable limit. According to Indonesia’s Health Ministry, at least 425,700 people have suffered respiratory problems because of the smoke. Over 22,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to combat more than 1,600 fires spread across six provinces.

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Indonesian authorities launched the country’s biggest operation to combat the fires in late October with few tangible results. They are deploying civilian and military vessels to evacuate people endangered directly or those most vulnerable to the smoke. Passenger terminals, warehouses and harbor facilities will be used to shelter smoke-haze refugees.

Indonesian Catholic leaders joined indigenous people and social groups to protest a lack of government action. The church had distributed more than 25,000 donated face masks to help local residents breathe.

The nation’s Catholic bishops have for weeks been urging stronger action from authorities to deal with the crisis. In October, after the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome on the family, they joined Catholic bishops around in the world in a demand for practical action from the U.N. sponsored conference on climate change in Paris in December.

At that conference Indonesian leaders will have to submit their plan for containing greenhouse gas emissions. The daily emissions from the peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra alone are currently exceeding the emissions generated by 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 by a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

The weeks of smoldering wildfires have claimed the lives of Indonesian children and adults vulnerable to respiratory distress, but they have perhaps 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.

According to NASA, which has been tracking the extent of the crisis as the smoke drifts across the region, peat 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 put them out only with the help of downpours during the rainy season. NASA reports Indonesia’s peat fires release far more smoke and air pollution than most other types of fire.

The fires start to burn in Indonesia every year because farmers engage in “slash and burn agriculture,” a technique that involves burning rainforest to clear the ground 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 the annual fires are illegal, the government has done little in the past to prevent them, and many in Indonesian civil society complain of government complicity with plantation owners, small landholders or pulp companies.

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