Massive forest fires are still blazing in Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, causing life-threatening levels of pollution, coming dangerously close to the base camp of The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, and devastating an area that is home to the largest orangutan population in the world.
One of the worst affected areas is the peat swamp forest of Sabangau. Once fire takes hold on such terrain, it burns underground and is extremely hard to extinguish.
Swathes of Sumatra are also still ablaze. There have been forest fires on Sumatra since the end of May and the fires began in Kalimantan in early September.
In Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) has been recording levels close to a staggering 2,000. Anything above 300 is already considered to be hazardous.
Staff of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), which is based in Palangkaraya, described the situation in Central Kalimantan as a major environmental disaster. “The largest area of lowland rainforest left in Borneo is burning and the world’s largest orangutan population is at risk.”
More than 400,000 people in the six affected Indonesian provinces on Sumatra and Borneo are reported to have suffered, or be suffering, haze-related acute respiratory infections.
At least eight people have died from their illnesses and there has been at least one fatality in West Kalimantan, where Donatus Pandji Willem died trying to protect his neighbours’ houses from the blaze after his own dwelling burned down.
In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province in Sumatra, where pollution hit levels of about 1,000, infants aged below six months in 12 sub-districts were put into a special evacuation nursery in an air-conditioned city hall building.
The fires have been exacerbated this year by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which is causing a prolonged dry season in Indonesia.
Large areas of Singapore and Malaysia have been blanketed by a choking haze since early September. There has been some respite for Singaporeans and Malaysians when pollution levels have dropped, but the haze has remained persistent in many parts of Malaysia, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and returned to unhealthy levels in many areas today. People are so used to the haze that most of them neglect to wear protective masks.
The haze from the fires in Kalimantan is now even affecting Sulawesi island to the east. On October 8, smog blanketed the popular Thai island of Phuket.
Malaysia uses the older PM10 system of measuring pollution levels, calculating the level of particles in the air that are 10 micrometres or less in diameter, whereas Singapore uses the PM2.5 system, measuring particles that have a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. There have been calls for Malaysia to update its system so there will be more accurate indications of the pollution levels.
Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas twin towers, shrouded in haze.
Singapore’s air quality also deteriorated again today, reaching the worst level in almost two weeks as the wind carried smog from Sumatra.
A group of volunteers from the “Let’s Help Kalimantan” group in Singapore headed back into the haze of Palangkaraya for a second time on Friday (October 16) with a shipment of 15,774 N95 masks for at-risk residents.
Also on Friday, 32 planes and helicopters, including six aircraft from Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia, were dispatched to back up the more than 22,000 Indonesian personnel on the ground who have been fighting the fires.
Teams on board the aircraft are conducting water bombing and cloud-seeding across the worst-hit provinces in Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo.
It is the biggest haze emergency operation ever carried out by the Indonesian government.
Teams from OuTrop have been battling the fires for more than a month, and are exhausted.
The community patrol team from the Centre for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) in Palangkaraya is also on the fire-fighting frontline.
On October 14, Simon Husson, who co-founded OuTrop, reported that the post just one kilometre from OuTrop’s Sabangau base camp was on fire. “The railway and surrounding vegetation is also burning. Worryingly, we are now fighting three fires that are close to camp. This is devastating news. Our team have been battling through the night and will not stop until these fires are extinguished,” Husson said.
On October 16, Husson posted on Facebook: “Smoke is thick and eyes are stinging. Fires are still being fought round the clock. We’re surviving, just about.”
The Orangutan Project, based in Australia, the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust, and Orangutan Outreach, based in the US, are just some of the organisations calling urgently for donations to help the OuTrop team and others battling the blazes.
It is impossible to know how many orangutans are sick or have died in the current fires, but the toll on wildlife is clearly catastrophic.
East Kalimantan is also being devastated by the fires. There were serious fears that the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s orangutan reintroduction centre would be damaged, but the main blaze threatening the centre was brought under control.
The BOS foundation lost 200 hectares of land at Samboja Lestari, including an arboretum where it has been planting trees for about a decade.
On October 16, the foundation reported that fire had broken out in the Tuanan area in Central Kalimantan, within the foundation’s Mawas peatlands conservation area, just 500 metres away from the Tuanan research station. The Central Kalimantan Regional Disaster Management Agency deployed a plane to water bomb the location.
In a statement issued on September 23, the BOS Foundation said the annual forest fires in Central and East Kalimantan significantly impacted both their orangutans and their staff, and the overall BOS Foundation activities.
“In Palangkaraya, the smoke is getting thicker by the day as a result of forest and peatland areas being burned in the middle of a prolonged dry season,” the foundation said. “This is clearly detrimental to both human and orangutan health.” Respiratory diseases led to infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia, the foundation added.
At the Nyaru Menteng care centre, about 28 kilometres from Palangkaraya, visibility has been reduced to less than 50 metres in the mornings and late afternoons.
“The orangutan babies are the worst affected by this situation as they are still so young and their immune systems are too immature to fight these extreme environmental conditions,” the foundation said. “Six of our 13 orangutan babies are receiving treatment from our veterinarians for acute respiratory infections and eye infections. Judging from the deteriorating situation, it looks likely that more medical cases will undoubtedly arise.
“All the orangutan babies are currently limited to playing indoors which is not optimum, but the safest option we currently can provide.”
Conditions for the orangutans on the BOS Foundation pre-release islands were no better than the ones in the forest school, the foundation said. “The Rungan river separating the islands from the mainland has almost completely dried up due to the long drought. Our technical team at Nyaru Menteng responsible for patrolling the islands have to walk for six hours each day to complete two feeding trips in order to provide the necessary supplementary food for orangutans inhabiting the islands. They also have to ensure that the orangutans stay on the island and do not roam across the drying river to nearby villages.”
The Samboja Lestari area was also engulfed by fire on August 31 and September 1 and thirty acres of rehabilitated forest were destroyed.
Most recent estimates indicate that fewer than 6,000 Sumatran orangutans and fewer than 45,000 Bornean orangutans survive in the wild today. Estimates point to a loss of between 3,000 and 5,000 every year.
Who is to blame?
The Singaporean government says the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA), which was passed in August last year, was breached four times in September.
It said investigations indicated that fires on lands held via concessions granted to four Indonesian companies may have contributed to the haze.
The companies were named as PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries, PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa, and PT Wachyuni Mandira.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) has sent preventive measure notices to the four companies, requesting them to take several actions, including deploying fire-fighting personnel to extinguish or prevent the spread of any fire on land owned or occupied by them.
The companies are also asked to discontinue, or not commence, any burning activities on such land and to submit to the NEA any plan of action to extinguish any fire on such land or to prevent its recurrence.
The Indonesian company Asia Pulp and Paper, which is based in Jakarta, but has an office in Singapore, has been served a notice pursuant to Section 10 of the THPA, requesting information about its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia and about measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to extinguish fires in their concessions.
The Indonesian government has suspended the operations of three palm oil companies – PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo, PT Tempirai Palm Resources, and PT Waringin Agro Jaya – which are suspected of illegal burning and has revoked the forestry licence held by PT Hutani Sola Lestari.
Langgam Inti Hibrindo issued a statement saying it was not responsible and would cooperate with the authorities.
In an article in the Jakarta Globe, conservation scientist Erik Meijaard asks: “Who Is Accountable for Indonesia’s Fire Disaster?”
The Global Forest Watch fires tool indicated that, from July 1 to October 6, 2015, there were a total of 69,413 fire alerts in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatra, Meijaard said. The current disaster was widely considered to be totally unexpected, but this year’s El Niño was on many people’s radar from early in 2015, he added.
“Surely the 1997-98 El Niño and resulting fire disaster is still burned in the memory of at least a few top-level decision-makers,” Meijaard wrote. “It should have been obvious that it would be a really bad fire year again. And what did the responsible government authorities do to prevent this man-made, not natural disaster? Not enough, apparently.”
Meijaard added: “Why is no one in the government taking responsibility? Has anyone said ‘sorry’? Has anyone been fired or resigned because of his or her failure to predict and prevent the present disaster? The government has had long-standing programs to prevent land fires and clearly these are not working. Where is the accountability?”
Many people in the world take accountability for messing up or under-performing, Meijaard points out. “But why has no official stepped forward in Indonesia to put up his or her hand, said mea culpa and acknowledged the failure to avoid an environmental and social disaster that is costing the country and its neighbours at least $47 billion – and counting? That is 0.5 percent of Indonesia’s GDP.”
Those in charge in Indonesia need to get strategies and laws in place now, Meijaard says. “It might be a good idea for some senior government officials and legislators involved in the fire and haze issue to spend the next few weeks in Kalimantan’s or Sumatra’s peatlands and help fight fires … Maybe that kind of up-close and personal experience of health impacts, failed harvests, and cancelled flights might get the message across that fires and haze are not a natural phenomenon, but a man-made disaster.”
The Indonesian government is reported to be investigating 276 business entities suspected to have caused forest fires. The Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, was quoted as saying most of the entities were palm oil companies whose permits were issued by district heads.
“In total, there are 276 suspected business entities. Some are not yet identified as they turned out to be cooperatives and HGU (land title for industrial purposes) business holders,” Siti Nurbaya was quoted as saying.
Indonesia says it is unfair to accuse it of being solely to blame for the haze pollution. The government has said there are companies based in Singapore that are contributing to the problem.
While blame has been levelled at palm oil companies, and there are large and small companies that clearly have fires blazing on their concessions, Meijaard says that companies bear too much of the blame.
Meijaard, who coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative, wrote in the Jakarta Globe that studies in Sumatra and Kalimantan “firmly point towards small-scale farmers and other under-the-radar, mid-scale land-owners, rather than large companies as the main cause of fires and haze”.
A study published in August 2015 in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” clearly shows that, on Sumatra, 59 percent of fire emissions originate from outside timber and oil palm concession boundaries, Meijaard says. “These non-concession-related fires generated 62 percent of smoke exposure in equatorial Southeast Asia (primarily Singapore and Malaysia).”
According to Global Forest Watch data, only three per cent of the hot spots recorded between September 7 and 14 were on oil palm concessions.
GFW’s analysis of accumulated hot spots for that week showed 48 per cent of fires were outside pulpwood, logging, and palm oil concessions. Of the remainder, 48 per cent were on pulpwood concessions.
Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US have warned that this year’s haze pollution could be worse than that experienced in 1997, when the haze from fires in Indonesia spread as far the Philippines to the north, Sri Lanka to the west, and northern Australia to the south.
On the NASA-linked Global Fire Emissions Database it is estimated that about 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases have been released as a result of this year’s forest fires – roughly equivalent to Germany’s entire annual output.
OuTrop was founded in 1999 by two graduate zoologists – Simon Husson and Helen Morrogh-Bernard – who were originally introduced to Sabangau and tropical peatlands by Professor Jack Rieley during the 1993-96 University of Nottingham research expeditions. Through these expeditions, the zoologists identified Sabangau as home to the largest orangutan population in the world. This led them to develop their seasonal expeditions into a full-time conservation project. Their aims are to raise awareness of the importance of Sabangau and other peat swamp forests for orangutan and biodiversity conservation, and to encourage sustainable management, protection, and restoration of this vital habitat.
The headline photo from the BOS Foundation was taken on September 25, 2015, and shows fires raging at Samboja Lestari, where the foundation runs an orangutan reintroduction programme.