Indonesian Fire Crisis: A Global Issue

This past year Indonesia experienced one of the largest wildfires in their history, second in terms of carbon emissions to a situation in 1997.  With the COP21 climate summit in progress in Paris, scrutiny has been placed upon the circumstance that led to this fire’s massive effect and response seen across the globe.

These numbers only increase into early November, with the absence of rain

The Why and How

In the past decade, Indonesia’s economy has seen a boost from the production of palm oil, pulp and logging.  These three industries require large plots of land to form plantations; thus, expanding onto peat.  Peat is an extremely carbon-rich and dry substance that extends underground.

A large portion of the fires are man-made.  They are a result of slash-and-burn techniques to clear the land for palm oil (makes up 52% of global supply) – a product that affects the food, cosmetics and household products industries.  Much of the land that is used to meet the growing demand for oil palm are peat land, when burned, release large amounts of greenhouse gasses.  Burning is the cheapest method of clearing land ($7/hec compared to $150/hec for tractors). The Indonesian government has sanctioned these actions in the 1980s, but it is not enforced well.  The central government does not have regulatory reach to the local level. Many local officials provide illegal permits and concessions for commission that funnel into re-election campaigns.

Palm oil is Indonesia’s most important cash crop, producing 18.9 billion dollars in export revenue.  It is still a growing industry in Indonesia and there are still plans to expand plantations in the near future.

Satellites have detected that land owned by pulp or logging companies are responsible for 24% of all fire hotspots detected in Indonesia.  However, major pulp and logging companies report that they do not use slash-and-burn methods to clear their land, instead blaming small businesses and campfires that cause widespread fires.  The government is actively investigating the cause of fires and their relation to large pulp and logging companies.

The majority of fires are in South Sumatra but are spread across multiple islands

So, how did the fires get out of control?    When lit on fire, the surface burns and the peat smolders.  Surface fires can be extinguished, by traditional methods, but peat fires are kept underground and require flooding to eliminate the danger of re-ignition.  To aggravate the issue, Indonesia has many coal deposits which can smolder for decades if ignited.  Also, peat land has been drained for land expansions, which cause drier conditions.  The combination of numerous peat fires and coal seams cause a continuing issue for fire containment.

To an extent, El Niño, a prolonged dry spell, and the missed prediction of its severity has contributed to the spread of this year’s fire.  From July to October, fires have been an annual occurrence, which has now been brought under scrutiny.  Some blame can be attributed to weather conditions, small businesses (whom are legally allowed to burn 2 hectares) or ignorant campers.  However, a much, much larger portion of blame is put towards sizable corporations that use the slash-and-burn technique to save costs.

Slash-and-burn is illegal for plantations and logging operations who seek the massive cost-savings of this technique.  Large global corporations blame the small and mid-sized companies that fall under the radar, while the public blames the large companies.  Indonesia has a very de-centralized government, which ultimately leaves regional authorities to exhibit control, or lack thereof, of corporations.  Local decision-makers are bribed for permits, or lose the ability to regulate the companies that seek to expand.  The government has failed to regulate the burning of peatland, and this has been an issue that has lasted decades.

“Large parts of Indonesia have now been in a state of emergency for over a month. Why has there not been a nationally declared total fire ban advertised 24/7 on all television channels?” asked Dr. Eric Meijaard, an Indonesia-based associate professor at the University of Queensland, in a recent editorial in the Jakarta Globe.  “Why has there not been a clear message: you burn — you go to jail?”

Why is this a global issue?

It is obvious that the majority of fault lies within Indonesia.  So, if this is an issue of power and regulation of corporations in Indonesia, why has this drawn global attention?  Why now?

Carbon Emissions

Peat is made of partly decayed organic matter and naturally captures large amounts of carbon dioxide from the surrounding environment, which makes it great for the environment when alive.  Normally, after a fire, peat will re-absorb the carbon emissions and produce a net neutral effect.  However, with plantations and other land expansions, this carbon dioxide is remains in the air.  As a comparison point, peat releases more carbon dioxide than burning coal or natural gas.

Peat smolders below the surface, so it is difficult to extinguish without flooding.

It was estimated in 2011 that global emissions must not exceed 1000 billion tons or climate change would be irreversible; 1.6 billion has been emitted through the Indonesian fire in just this year.  Indonesia will come under scrutiny for how they handle the next few months and how they intend on stopping events like this fire in the future.  I do not believe there is much trust in the international community in the Indonesian government to control the local elites, so it will be interesting to see how this moves forward.

Here are some numbers to show you the impact of this fire:

  • Carbon emissions released from the 2015 fire are equal to 1.6 billion tonnes – the same amount of carbon emissions as Brasil and exceeding UK.  It has increased Indonesia from 6th in global emissions to 4th in 6 weeks.
  • As of October 29th, 2015, there are 116, 878 fires currently burning, which is the second highest on record.  Fires have been partly suppressed in November.
  • Per day, the forest fires emit as much carbon dioxide as the US economy does in a day.
  • The Indonesian government is spending $50 million USD per week on firefighting during the last six week and total costs could reach $14 billion USD by the end of the season.  The fires have caused approximately 10 billion USD in economic losses for Indonesia.

Health Crisis

Over 550 000 Indonesians have been reported with health issues related to the haze from wildfires.  The haze has spread into Singapore and Malaysia.  The haze in Indonesia also contributed to measurements of 1,357-micrograms-per-cubic-meter in Palangkaraya  (150 is the  recommended max).  It has affected air quality in surrounding countries and has been detrimental to their economies, causing shutdowns in schools and airports.  In October, Malaysia had readings of a “very unhealthy” level, which has forced people to stay indoors as much as possible.

Singapore air
Air quality in the neighboring country of Singapore has been affected by the haze from Indonesian fires


The haze resulting from the fires in 1997 is in many ways similar to the fires in 2015.  It was caused by slash-and-burn techniques that got out of control through El Nino. In 1997, the Asean region suffered 9 billion USD in damages from healthcare and economic disruptions.

Ecological Damage

The rapid expansion in addition to fires have caused unknown health issues and habitat loss to endangered species who live in the Indonesian rainforests.  Species like orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran elephants have all suffered due to the constant smoke and flames.

Global Demand for Indonesia’s Exports

The global demand for palm oil is increasing with trends towards healthy eating.  The primary use for palm oil is for cooking in developing countries.  It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel.  Over half of packaged products that the US consumes has palm oil in it.

Palm oil is a very productive crop. It offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils.  The demand for palm oil in the US is increasing, in part by health concerns, as it is seen as a replacement for animal fats.

What Now?

There are some obvious concerns that need to be addressed by the Indonesian government.  Fire prevention and control of the slash-and-burn should be primary concerns moving forward.  Since wildfires are an annual occurrence that is a known entity, the Indonesian government needs to act proactively to prevent large and uncontrollable fires.  Even with a miscalculation on the strength of this year’s El Nino, the fires should be better contained.

In addition,  Indonesia’s response to the raging wildfires was inadequate, to say the least.  Indonesia does not have a strong aerial firefighting force, with only around 20 helicopters that can respond to the fires.  By refusing foreign aid until mid-September, they let the fires burn out of control before acting.  I understand that the exorbitant costs of leasing firefighting planes are taxing on their government, but this is the same government that lead to the existence of many of these fires.

Almost 20 years ago, a fire of similar magnitude caused similar problems for the same South Asian region.  Only recently, have we increased our concern for climate change and global emissions.  With the COP21 climate summit this year, Indonesia will be under a microscope and will be forced into some changes.



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