Haze in South-East Asia has become an annual problem, affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of people and costing billions of dollars in damages. Can anything be done to stop it?
Palm oil has become part of people’s everyday lives, as an ingredient in food products, such as ice cream and potato chips, as well as in cosmetics and toiletries.
Fires that have ravaged large swathes of Indonesian forests and peat lands and choked much of South-East Asia in acrid smog for three months have called attention to the role of the palm oil industry in environmental destruction.
The blazes and resulting haze have killed at least 24 people and made more than half a million ill with respiratory infections. Indonesia’s disaster management personnel have called the disaster “a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions.”
“Demand for palm oil, both national and overseas, is a big driver of forest conversion,” said Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist at the Borneo Futures Initiative, which seeks to preserve the island’s natural environment.
“And a lot of fires are lit for the purpose of developing oil palm plantations,” he said.
Meijaard, who described the forest fires as “the biggest man-made environmental disaster of the 21st century” in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Globe, said much of the blame lies with the government for initially downplaying the crisis.
“They are burying their heads in the sand, probably because at least some believe that the fire and haze impacts are an acceptable cost of development,” Meijaard told dpa.
“This is where they are wrong,” he said. “The Indonesian economy and people are losing out because of burning.”
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, with output at 33 million metric tons in 2014, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Exports of palm oil have grown from 15.65 million tons in 2008 to 24.37 million tons in 2014, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The country exports palm oil mainly to China, but also to the Netherlands and Germany.
Environmental activists say palm oil companies and farmers have resorted to burning as a cheap way to clear land with no legal consequences despite the practice being generally illegal.
Major pulpwood and palm oil plantations have also been accused by activists of building roads and draining peat swamps by installing networks of canals, thereby increasing the risk of fire because of the lowering of the water table.
Greenpeace said this year’s Indonesian fires have occurred in land owned by nearly 2,000 pulpwood, palm oil and coal mining companies.
Peatland drainage is especially disastrous, as peat fires emit huge quantities of carbon dioxide and also methane, resulting in up to many times more damage to the global climate than regular fires, scientists said.
Emissions from this year’s fires have reached 1.62 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, making Indonesia the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, surpassing Russia, according to the World’s Resources Institute (WRI).
“While the country may finally be getting some relief as heavy rainfall interrupts months of record-breaking fires and toxic smog in South Sumatra and Kalimantan, the damage to human health, the economy and the global climate has already been done,” the WRI said in an article on its website.
Guido van der Werf, a researcher at VU University Amsterdam, told the Washington Post that emissions from the fires over a three-week period in October were already higher than the total annual CO2 emissions of Germany.
Sutopo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, said this year’s fires cover more than 2 million hectares of forests and peatland, equivalent to the size of 1.9 million football pitches.
The government has estimated that the cost to the economy could be as high as 31 billion US dollars.
“Peat degradation is the main source of Indonesia’s carbon emissions through fire,” said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for Forestry Research (CIFOR).
An absence of transparent spatial maps, corruption and ineffective local governments are to blame for a lack of legal action against those who deliberately start fires, Purnomo said.
“Many cases of burning committed by large- and medium-scale companies were not acted upon because these firms have major political and economic influences either locally or nationally,” said Purnomo.
Purnomo said his research indicated that forest fires spiked during local election seasons, possibly because incumbent leaders were courting business people to finance their re-election bids.
“There’s a strong network of patronage between local power-holders and businesses and this has frustrated efforts by the central government to enforce the law,” he said.