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Imagine a fire the size of a country.

Between the summer and winter of last year, that was Indonesia.

Fire is a tool in this part of the world, and every year Indonesian farmers burn down wild forest to make room for more pulpwood, rubber plantations and palm oil. But last year was different. The fires fed on peatland raged beyond control, consuming the timber that burns so easily in the country’s dry season. Indonesia became Hell on Earth, with satellites showing the length of the country swaddled in smoke. Borneo and western Sumatra, the worst-hit areas, glowed like embers. Acid haze poured over the borders and into Malaysia and Singapore and Thailand.

A Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops a water and fire retardant slurry on a fire on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Nov. 17, 1997. Three C-130s and a total of 96 service members were sent to Indonesia for humanitarian support in fighting the jungle fires that year. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Daryl McKamey, Air National Guard)

A Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops a water and fire retardant slurry on a fire on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Nov. 17, 1997. Three C-130s and a total of 96 service members were sent to Indonesia for humanitarian support in fighting the jungle fires that year. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Daryl McKamey, Air National Guard)

Some 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections were reported after the fires began, and none of Indonesia’s 28 million citizens were unaffected by the haze. The nation’s government estimated that the financial damage could be as high as $47 billion, though more recent estimates scale that figure down to a mere $15 billion.

The ecological cost is incalculable.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the carbon emissions generated by the Indonesian fire regularly exceeded the daily emissions of the entire United States. In late October, WRI reported that the emissions from the fire alone reached 1.62 billion metric tons of CO2, pushing Indonesia from the world’s sixth-largest emitter of carbon to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.

“It’s really like an apocalypse out there now,” Heather Rally, PETA wildlife veterinarian and member of the Oceanic Preservation Society, told Planet Experts.  “It’s so toxic, the air. You can’t escape it anywhere. Children have died already. They’ve evacuated people because it’s so bad.”

From NASA's Adam Voiland: "As seen in this September 24 image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite... Thick gray smoke hovers over both islands and has triggered air quality alerts and health warnings in Indonesia and neighboring countries. Visibility has plummeted." Image captured on September 24, 2015. (Photo Credit: NASA)

From NASA’s Adam Voiland: “As seen in this September 24 image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite… Thick gray smoke hovers over both islands and has triggered air quality alerts and health warnings in Indonesia and neighboring countries. Visibility has plummeted.” Image captured on September 24, 2015. (Photo Credit: NASA)

Rally traveled to Indonesia in October following an investigation into the fires’ effect on the native forests, which were already suffering from the relentless deforestation of palm oil planters. And it is the planters, she claims, that are largely to blame for the apocalypse.

“The only two industries that are really implicated in this are palm oil and pulp and paper,” she said. “But palm oil is an industry that is known for slash and burn tactics, and that’s known for illegal encroachment on protected forests. So they are the big players in this fire, by far the major players in this fire.”

Why Palm Oil?

Because it’s in everything. Products as varied as chocolate bars, margarine, ice cream, frozen pizza, lipstick and shampoo, all contain palm oil. You like fried food? More than a third of all vegetable oil produced each year comes from palm oil. It’s cheaper and tastier than other commonly used oils and can be found in about 50 percent of all pre-packaged snack foods.

Palm oil is derived from palm nuts, the fruit of oil palm trees.

Palm oil is derived from palm nuts, the fruit of oil palm trees. (Photo via Creative Commons)

Deforestation is rampant in Indonesia largely because global palm oil demand is so high. The palm oil trade is worth about $50 billion, and while that’s great business for Indonesia, it’s wreaked havoc on its forests. Land of unparalleled biodiversity is cleared every day to make way for palm oil plantations, and plantation owners can get the oil to market faster and cheaper when they don’t bother with logging permits. The government ostensibly wants to stop this runaway deforestation, but through either general incompetence or willful ignorance, it has failed to do so in any meaningful way.

“The problem is not that the laws don’t exist, the problem is that they’re not being enforced,” said Heather Rally.

Planet Expert Heather Rally in front of popular cookie products that use palm oil in their ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Heather Rally)

Heather Rally in front of popular cookie products that use palm oil in their ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Heather Rally)

Palm oil traders and plantation owners effectively call the shots, the vet added. “The traders are really like a militia of their own. There are militias that still run this country. And there’s conflict and there’s bargaining and it’s a power play between the corporations and the plantations, and the people who are in the middle, and the government.”

As long as the plantations hold the power, the situation is unlikely to change. They know the world wants what they’re offering and they know consumers are largely unaware of the life and land that is being plundered to make their Oreo cookies.

Everyone wants a piece of this essential ingredient: World Bank, Deutsche Bank and Allianz, all have major stakes in Indonesian palm oil investments. Food companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme have pledged to no longer purchase palm oil from illegal sources, but similar pledges have failed to hold up under scrutiny. In late 2013, Wilmar International, which controls 45 percent of the palm oil market, announced that it would commit to a “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” policy. A year later, Indonesian environmental group Greenomics reported that the company was still sourcing its palm oil from illegal operations.

Planet Experts reached out to Dunkin’ Donuts for comment on how they planned to avoid the use of conflict palm oil in their supply chain.

“Dunkin’ Brands is a relatively minor user of palm oil,” said Christine Riley Miller, Senior Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Dunkin’ Donuts. “We recognize, however, that sourcing even limited amounts of palm oil irresponsibly can contribute to climate change, loss of natural habitats for endangered species and other environmental and social concerns including the violation of human rights. For that reason, Dunkin’ Brands has a target to source 100 percent fully traceable palm oil to the plantation, RSPO certified and compliant with the our Responsible Palm Oil Principles by December 31, 2016 for US operations.”

The Forests Will Continue to Burn

For more than two decades, slash and burn has been a legally sanctioned practice in Indonesia. The problem, explains Rally, is that many of these fires are burning on peat land.

Composed of decayed vegetation and other organic matter, peat is extremely flammable. In Indonesia, loggers drain the watery bogs where peat is found and use it as a natural pyre for the timber that they clear.

Indonesian firefighters trying to contain forest fire in South Kalimantan. October, 2015. (Photo via WikiMedia Commons)

Indonesian firefighters trying to contain forest fire in South Kalimantan. October, 2015. (Photo via WikiMedia Commons)

“They drain them and they burn them,” said Rally, “and because they can be up to 65 feet deep into the earth of just decaying organic material, they’re basically smoldering under the earth, like coals. So even when there’s a rain or when they die out on the surface, if the wind picks it up the right way they’re just spark up another patch of the forest really easily.”

That’s why Indonesia’s fires burn for so long. The situation is somewhat akin to the fate of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Once a prosperous coal mining operation, the town had to be evacuated after the coal deposits beneath it caught fire. There’s enough coal buried under Centralia to keep the town smoldering for decades, and there’s no way to put it out. Every year, Indonesia becomes Centralia writ large.

Alternating between dry and wet seasons, fire is a natural part of Indonesia’s ecosystem. But as the swamps are drained and forests thinned, there are fewer natural impediments to stop it. The last major flameout occurred in 1997 and resulted in some $9 billion worth of damages. Last year’s fires, stoked by the strongest El Niño in 50 years, simply could not stop burning.

This image shows the pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on October 22, 1997. White represents the aerosols (smoke) that remained in the vicinity of the fires. Green, yellow, and red pixels represent increasing amounts of tropospheric ozone (smog) being carried to the west by high-altitude winds. (Photo via NASA)

This image shows the pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on October 22, 1997. White represents the aerosols (smoke) that remained in the vicinity of the fires. Green, yellow, and red pixels represent increasing amounts of tropospheric ozone (smog) being carried to the west by high-altitude winds. (Photo via NASA)

“They had one bout of rain and it didn’t do anything,” said Rally. “The fires just sparked up again right after. It’s a really huge problem, in part because there were so many that were lit this year simultaneously.”

The government says it understands the problem, has pledged to combat deforestation, even issued a nationwide moratorium on new logging and planting concessions. In 2012, the Ministry of Forestry announced that the deforestation rate had significantly decreased. But experts disagree. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change claims that forest clearing in Indonesia has increased an average of 47,600 hectares every year since 2000. Forty percent of that loss occurred on national land that restricts or prohibits logging.

The World Is Losing More Than Just Orangutans

Orangutans are now extinct in southeastern Asia, save for the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The ape and its close-knit families live in trees, and the trees are all coming down.

Since 2004, Sumatran orangutan numbers have plummeted due to deforestation and poaching. Earlier this year, researchers were surprised to discover that both Sumatra and Borneo contain higher numbers of the ape than previously estimated – but it will not matter in the end.

Chomel, a Sumatran orangutan, at Singapore Zoo, 2009. (Photo Credit: Lionel Leo via WikiMedia Commons)

Chomel, a Sumatran orangutan, at Singapore Zoo, 2009. (Photo Credit: Lionel Leo via WikiMedia Commons)

Researchers estimate that future forest loss will claim the lives of up to 4,500 orangutans in the coming years. “The threats to the forest are as real as ever,” says Serge Wich, professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University.

In 2012 alone, an estimated 8,400 square kilometers of Indonesian forest was cut down to make room for new farms and palm oil plantations. This widespread destruction endangers not only orangutans but a sizable chunk of the planet’s biodiversity, including 10 percent of the world’s plants, 12 percent of the world’s mammals and 17 percent of the world’s bird species.

And then there is the untold number of human beings that breathe the ceaseless smoke year after year.

“It’s been so frustrating for me to be on the ground and to see this happening to the hundreds of millions of people who are suffering, to the forests that are just being demolished and the amazing creatures that literally – I mean orangutans already, we’ve already pushed these animals to the brink and we’re just obliterating their habitat,” said Rally.

Charred bodies of orangutans were found in a protected forest in Bontang earlier this year. (Photo via DailyMail)

Charred bodies of orangutans were found in a protected forest in Bontang earlier this year. (Photo via DailyMail)

“To see that on the ground and then to come back here and see what little international attention those fires have gotten… They’re labeling them as forest fires, as if this is a natural phenomenon that happens cyclically every year.”

Rally added that Indonesia doesn’t need more laws to prevent this wholesale destruction and pollution. It needs to get serious about the laws that are already on the books. “There are plenty of laws in place right now that, were they to be enforced, could actually really uphold civil and environmental rights – but they are not being enforced,” she said. “The traders are really the ones that are in control. The traders and the plantation owners.”

And for every step forward, the government seems to knock itself two steps back. After announcing that it would punish more than 50 plantation companies for their role in the fires, a $565 million lawsuit against one such company was rejected in December.

“There has been bad governance and bad management of the forests, based on our study of the last 12 years, and everyone says it is the fault of the previous minister, or previous governor,” Dian Patria, acting director of research and development at Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, recently told BBC.

If the Indonesian government can’t enforce its own laws, if the plantation owners can’t clear forests in a sustainable fashion and, most importantly, if global consumers aren’t informed about what their favorite unknown ingredient is doing to orangutans, human health and the atmosphere, then Indonesia will one day resemble the curled and blackened fragment of a match left to burn itself to cinder.

To learn more, the Rainforest Action Network has a great site dedicated to current issues and initiatives in the fight against conflict palm oil.

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One Response

  1. Great piece!
    Just took a spin to learn a bit more about some of the issue impacting Indonesia. When it’s a situation of government complicity with corporations the ripple effects are felt everywhere. Seems there are a great many laws on the books but it’s clear why they aren’t being enforced. I remember reading that Indonesia passed a law that required vehicles to have either palm oil or ethanol mixed in to their fuel. Not exactly a lot of motivation to curb the current practices.
    I read there is a yeast alternative in the works that is grown sustainably. That’s the only way things will change. The demand won’t got away but the supply has to change. .

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