(ANTIMEDIA) Indonesia — One of the worst humanitarian and environmental disasters rages on as you read this, but chances are you’ve heard nothing about it: Indonesia is burning, literally. And despite the breathtaking size of this conflagration — the 5,000 km [nearly 3,107 miles] flaming swath of land daily produces more emissions than all economic activity in the United States — the media remains virtually silent.
As George Monbiot reported in The Guardian:
A great tract of Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 meters [98.43 feet]. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century — so far.
It’s entirely possible you share partial responsibility for fanning the flames — which are now labeled a crime against humanity — if you purchase brands like Nestle, Starbucks, PepsiCo, and Heinz (among others), as these companies have been criticized for their criminally irresponsible practices in the palm oil industry. Assuming this particular inferno will eventually be extinguished, the situation will almost certainly repeat — unless these companies step up to the plate.
Meanwhile, thick smoke chokes the entire region, creating such apocalyptically eerie situations as the need for face masks inside parliament during a Kalimantan political debate in the Palangkaraya province, where visibility of around 60 feet made identifying participants — not to mention the act of breathing — a matter of chance. This year’s raging inferno has the potential to surpass 1997’s records — which caused a 1.2% population “gap” in the 2000 Census due to prenatal exposure to pollutants.
In fact, though the fires are an expected annual occurrence, this year’s nearly 100,000 reported fires include two particularly nasty aspects previous record-breakers did not: burning peat combined with an intense El Niño.
Besides vast tracts of vegetation, this burning peat has compounded the danger in at least half the fires — simply put, the land itself is on fire. Monbiot explained how this dire factor came into play:
“Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber, and palm oil . The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe.”
Wetland peat naturally prevents the spread of fire, but years of mismanagement through draining the rich, organic layers of decomposing plant life have created a tinderbox. Burning trees release plenty of carbon dioxide on their own, but the smoldering peat also releases exceedingly high levels of methane and nitrous oxide — and no matter your personal views about the changing climate, these chemicals are highly toxic to humans and other species. Less than two weeks ago, the air in central Indonesia reached levels ten times those deemed ‘dangerous.’
“Dry peat ignites very easily and can burn for days or weeks, even smoldering underground and re-emerging away from the initial source. This makes them incredibly difficult to extinguish,” explained Professor Susan Page, an expert on peatland conservation.
Normally roughly contained within boundaries of palm oil plantations, this year’s conflagrations distressingly creep further into the dense forests of Borneo, threatening wild orangutans, hornbills, clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and a number of other species. Military ships, functioning as a last resort, have had toprepare to evacuate chunks of the suffocating populace.
The Indonesian government ultimately perpetuates irresponsible deforestation in its suspicion of those palm oil-sourcing corporations that actually attempt reform. Five such companies fell under harsh government criticism as recently as September for their attempt to eliminate the practice, with unnamed Indonesian officials describing the effort as harmful to the farmers and a usurpation of governmental authority that “might constitute a cartel dominated by foreign interests,” reported Mongabay.
At the heart of government concern lies the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), despite its rather cooperative-sounding mission statement:
“We the signatories of [IPOP] recognize that while the palm oil industry has contributed significantly to Indonesia’s economic development, we can work together with multi-stakeholders to find solutions for sustainable palm oil that is deforestation-free, respects human and community rights, and delivers shareholder value.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo appears to be at least somewhat sympathetic to the issue, but faces staunch opposition from groups that evolved from 1960s death squads operating with support from the West during Suharto’s rule. This profiteering from organized crime that includes illegal deforestation has support of the three-million-member strong, paramilitary Pancasila Youth — whose “orange camo-print uniforms, scarlet berets, sentimental gatherings, and schmaltzy music” give the appearance of “a fascist militia as imagined by [apocalyptic science fiction novelist] J.G. Ballard,” as Monbiot described.
Considering Indonesia’s own predicted minimum $35 billion [U.S.] cost of these fires, governmental justification for halting reform appears hollow, at best. Whether the fires can be contained at all is anyone’s guess.