Illegal forest fires send another lethal haze over parts of Indonesia

By Owen Howell
23 October 2019

After three weeks of improved air quality, the thick haze of smoke from deliberately lit forest fires, which began to spread across Indonesia in July, has returned to the province of South Sumatra. On October 14, the haze descended on the provincial capital of Palembang, causing the city’s Air Pollutant Index (API) to soar to an all-time high of 921. The return of the smog forced the closure of Palembang’s airport and most of its schools.

The Sumatran provinces of Jambi and Riau continue to be severely affected by the deadly haze. The air quality in Jambi, where the blanket of toxic smoke has taken on an ominous orange glow in the sky, has been described by the Air Quality Monitoring System as “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”

Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) issued a warning on October 15 to Sumatran residents about more smoke on the way from revived forest fires. Spokesman Agus Wibowo said the agency has used weather satellites to detect 1,547 hotspots in a total of six provinces. The fires, intensified by the El Niño weather pattern, have so far destroyed more than 320,000 hectares of forest.

The haze began in July this year when vast stretches of land on Sumatra and Borneo islands were burned. The national government sent 9,000 military, police, and disaster agency personnel to fight the ravaging fires, using dozens of aircraft for water bombing and cloud-seeding to trigger rain.

By August the haze had spread to Singapore and Malaysia, where the API reading registered in places at 223, or “very unhealthy.” The Malaysian government closed over 400 schools across the country and a heated diplomatic dispute with Indonesia ensued. Over the past two months, the widespread haze has engulfed Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

This year’s fires are the worst on Indonesia’s record since the catastrophic haze of 2015. The Southeast Asian haze is a yearly occurrence which has steadily grown in intensity throughout the last two decades. The air pollution crisis is caused every dry season (from July to October) in the region by the industrial-scale slash-and-burn practices of palm oil companies in Indonesia. Every year the fires are lit in the provinces of South Sumatra, Riau, and West Kalimantan, the country’s central locations for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

Companies resort to these land clearing methods as a cheaper and faster alternative to the typical use of heavy construction equipment. Clearing land through the use of machinery and chemicals can cost up to $US200 per hectare, but fire costs only $US5 per hectare. Then, as the clearing takes place on the swampy peat forests of Sumatra and Borneo, the peat soil, which is acidic, deficient in nutrients, and often ridden with plant diseases, has to be made suitable for agriculture. With chemicals and fertilisers, the cost per hectare is $US2,800, but with fire, only $US140. Burned land can also be sold illegally at a higher price.

The excessive drainage of peat land for agricultural use has resulted in the top layer of peat drying out making it very flammable. In the dry season, the carbon-rich peat, now drained, can potentially be a highly toxic contributor to the haze.

The fires themselves cause damage both to small village communities and the region’s invaluable biodiversity, as well as releasing huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.

The haze is responsible for a sudden rise in debilitating health problems, especially among poorer sections of the population, who are exposed to the haze for sustained periods while at work, yet are afforded limited medical access. Excessive inhalation of the smoke from forest fires has been linked to various cardiovascular conditions, including acute ischemic stroke and even cardiac arrest.

Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory issues such as asthma are the most likely to be afflicted by the pollution. As of September, there were 885,026 cases of severe respiratory infections in South Sumatra, Riau, and West Kalimantan.

As a protective measure against the smog, authorities have repeatedly advised residents to wear masks when going outdoors. The face masks, handed out at medical clinics, are notorious for offering almost no protection at all from the thick, choking haze.

Amid government panic over the situation, President Joko Widodo threatened to sack firefighters if the fires were not soon extinguished, as Tempo reported in August. Following this line of attack, provincial police have been engaged in various efforts to blame the fires on impoverished farmers and thereby direct attention away from the pulp and palm oil companies.

The truth, on the other hand, is no secret to Indonesian workers. Amiruddin Noer, a taxi driver from Jambi, told Channel News Asia, “it’s not just individuals who set the land on fire. There are a lot of companies too, but they are untouchable by the police.”

Those lighting fires face a fine of $US706,600 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted. However, a recent finding by Greenpeace Indonesia showed that several plantations owned by palm oil companies, whose lands were known to be burned every dry season for the past four years, were never punished with serious sanctions.

The Environmental Affairs and Forestry Ministry announced it had sued more than 60 companies, 20 of which are foreign-owned firms, believed to be responsible for the blazes. Successive Indonesian governments have promised to tackle the forest fire issue and hold companies accountable, suing them for “negligence”.

In September 2015, at the height of the crisis, Widodo stated that the recurrent haze problem was “not a problem that you can solve quickly.” Addressing an angry public, he declared: “You will see results soon, and in three years we will have solved this.”

The same companies which were discovered burning wide expanses of land during the crisis of 2015 have been found carrying on identical practices four years later, with devastating consequences for Indonesia’s natural environment and the conditions of life of its working class.

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