Ambassadors for the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) have called on the Indonesian government to ban the use of fire to clear land if sustainable practices cannot be implemented.
For months, huge fires have been raging through vast areas of forest on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
Thousands of hectares of forest have been destroyed, there have been fatalities, and at least half a million people have been suffering from respiratory illnesses because of the pollution.
This year’s fires have been described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”. They have been exacerbated by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused a prolonged dry season in Indonesia.
Most of the fires have been on peatland, which should be protected, but has been drained, mostly to make way for oil palm plantations. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.
Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, said last week that he had instructed the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, not to grant any new permits on peatland. He said there needed to be a review of concessions already granted, particularly on peat.
Jokowi also said he would issue a presidential declaration that would establish a task force to address the problem of forest fires. “We are focusing on preventative measures,” he said.
GRASP ambassadors Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Russell Mittermeier, Richard Wrangham, and Nadya Hutagalung issued a joint statement on Tuesday warning that endangered orangutans are at risk in Sumatra and Borneo, and globally important biodiversity is at stake.
“We are aghast at the forest and peat fires in Sumatra and Borneo that continue to grow and threaten the populations, wildlife, and ecosystems of Indonesia,” the GRASP ambassadors said. “In particular, these fires threaten a third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans – a population that has already decreased by over 50 percent in the last half century and is increasingly fragmented.”
The 2015 fires, the ambassadors pointed out, have been emitting as much carbon into the atmosphere in a single day as some industrialised nations release in an entire year.
“Carbon-rich peatlands are in flames and lost forever, and the resulting toxic haze continues to spread across the region. Nearly 120,000 fires have been counted, and the resulting devastation will likely cost the government of Indonesia an estimated 30 billion US$.”
The GRASP ambassadors commended the Indonesian government for its past efforts, but said that new problems demanded new measures. “Time is short and the future is at stake.”
The government, the ambassadors said, needed to put in place regulations to stop the unsustainable development of crops such as oil palm.
“If these activities cannot be properly regulated, there must be a complete moratorium on burning for land clearance, as we have now seen the ruination these fires can wreak.”
The pollution has been reduced over the past ten days with the arrival of long-awaited rainfall, but the monsoon storms have brought other problems. In Central Kalimantan, locals are now having to deal with flooding, electricity cuts, and a fuel shortage. A tornado last Saturday brought down seven electricity towers.
A regional disaster
It is the people in Indonesia who have suffered most from the fires and the resulting air pollution – particularly in the worst affected provinces of Jambi, South Sumatra, South Kalimantan, Riau, Central Kalimantan, and West Kalimantan – but a noxious smog also blanketed whole areas of neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. In addition to the health problems caused in both countries, schools had to be closed when pollution became particularly hazardous, and flights were cancelled or delayed. The pollution also reached Thailand and the Philippines.
Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, blanketed by pollution.
In Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, people were choking in pollution levels exceeding 3,000. (More than 300 is already considered to be hazardous to health.)
Palangkaraya in September this year. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn.
In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, pollution hit levels of about 1,000 and infants aged below six months in 12 sub-districts were put into a special evacuation nursery in an air-conditioned city hall building.
Erik Meijaard quotes Professor Susan Page from the University of Leicester, who has worked in Kalimantan peat swamps since the early 1990s. She wrote to him saying that “the levels of carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone are off the scale”.
Scientists conducting research in Central Kalimantan found that the harmful compounds in the air included ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, nitric oxide, and methane.
Global Forest Watch says peat stores some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth and its methane emissions result in up to 200 times more damage to the global climate than “regular fires of similar extent”.
‘Nowhere to hide’
Emmanuela Dewi Shinta lived through the months of pollution in Palangkaraya and says she still feels like crying when she remembers the horror of those days.
One of Shinta’s aunts died as a result of the pollution. “She died from lung failure. When the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) level reached 1,000 she was taken to hospital and she died one week later.”
Shinta was living in PSI levels of more than 3,600.
“It was awful. We had no oxygen. I got to the point where I felt like we were just waiting to die; surrounded by hotspots and haze, with no oxygen and nowhere to hide. I really do wonder how so many of us are still alive. Heaven knows what the long-term health effects will be.”
A man who was unable to work because of the pollution casts his fishing net into a dirty canal in Palangkaraya. “Better a dirty fish than no fish at all,” he told photographer Bjorn Vaughn.
It’s not known how many deaths can be attributed to this year’s fires and pollution, but numerous elderly people, and at least one baby, are among those who lost their lives. Some reports put the death toll at ten, but this has to be a serious underestimate.
“The number of deaths reported so far in Central Kalimantan doesn’t take account of the people who died in traffic accidents,” Shinta points out. “We are pushing hard to get accurate statistics.”
At the height of the pollution, visibility was close to zero in Palangkaraya. The city was shrouded in a dense yellow smog.
In Palangkaraya, PSI levels are still about 200, which is still unhealthy, but nothing compared to the staggering levels a few weeks ago. After the recent typhoon, half of the city has been without electricity and the storms have ripped the roofs off many homes.
When the fires were blazing, Shinta worked to help others, providing health education, distributing masks and medicines, bringing volunteer health workers, doctors and nurses to villages, and delivering food and vitamins. “After doing that every day for nearly two months, finally my own health suffered. I almost lost my voice. It was like that for three weeks and still isn’t normal even now.”
Shinta says the indigenous Dayak people should not be blamed for causing the fires. “We are the victims. We are the ones breathing the poisonous air and losing our land, rubber trees, vegetables, and forest; losing our loved ones.”
The elderly and the young suffer the most, Shinta says, and they suffer every year.
Shinta tells of the death from lung failure of a 22-year-old woman, Saripah, from the village of Bereng Bengkel in Central Kalimantan, who had been suffering from asthma since 2013.
In a video about Saripah, her mother, Siti, is visibly traumatised by her daughter’s recent death, but manages to explain what happened.
“At first she had fever, then a headache, then she had difficulty breathing. When she died, her lungs were black. And she didn’t smoke.
“She also had heart trouble; her face, legs, and arms were swollen. Her heart couldn’t function anymore and, if she wasn’t given oxygen, she couldn’t breathe.”
Siti says her daughter’s health deteriorated during this year’s pollution. “She couldn’t breathe when lying down at night so she slept sitting up. She had to breathe through her mouth.”
Shinta says the people in and around Palangkaraya are very critical of the government, and disappointed about how little help they have received. “People are disappointed about the government’s inadequate response when things were really bad. It was volunteers from Singapore who first came to bring us proper N95 protective masks.
”And this is a situation that could have been prevented. It is 18 years now since the fires of 1997, and people are still suffering like this.”
In October and November 1997, 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.
The GRASP ambassadors said that orangutan rehabilitation centres in Indonesia were already beyond capacity, and rescue workers had been forced to risk their own lives, battling against fire and haze to relocate endangered orangutans.
“These fires are the result of slash-and-burn agriculture, conducted by small stakeholders and companies hoping to clear land for oil palm plantations, as well as pulp and paper.
“While the fires this year are particularly damaging and may be fueled by the El Niño weather patterns, this activity has become an annual, systemic issue. It affects human health, hastens the impact of climate change, and cripples the sustainable use of the ecosystem. For the sake of humans as much as apes, it needs to be addressed.”
Globally important forests like Sabangau and the Gunung Leuser National Park needed to be protected, the ambassadors said, not only for the orangutans, but for the rich variety of species living under their canopies. “The devastation these fires have wrought is proof that protection of these areas needs to extend past the simple preservation of their boundaries.”
The public, too, can make a vital contribution by demanding products that are not harmful to human health and the environment, the GRASP ambassadors say. “The devastation already caused by these fires is all too clear. Creative responses are needed now.”
The Sabangau forest in Central Kalimantan.
The fires have come very close to orangutan sanctuaries in Kalimantan. Organisations including the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS Foundation) and International Animal Rescue (IAR) have launched urgent appeals for funds.
“Fires spread to protected areas such as national parks and conservation areas,” IAR said. “Since the fire crisis first began, our team has rescued 14 orangutans, some directly from fires or from the smouldering forests.”
The orangutans rescued by IAR included a mother, Mama Anti, and her baby, who were found malnourished and in distress in the village of Kuala Satong in West Kalimantan in October.
“The villagers were frightened and threw things at the terrified mother before attempting to capture and tie her up,” IAR said.
“Fortunately IAR’s team got to her just in time. They quickly anaesthetised the mother with her frightened baby clinging on tightly throughout. The adult female was extremely thin, but still had milk to nourish the baby. She had some minor skin wounds and the team removed rope that was tied around her wrist. They checked her over and gave her treatment including intravenous fluids.”
The orangutans have been released into a 4,000-hectare conservation area in West Kalimantan managed by the palm oil company PT Kayung Agro Lestari (KAL), where they are being monitored by KAL’s conservation team. They are reported to be adapting well to their new environment.
Earlier, six orangutans sought refuge from the fires in the same conservation area.
In late October, the programme director for IAR Indonesia, Karmele Llano Sanchez, said: “Orangutans and other animals are being burnt alive, left without food, and starving to death, or are being pushed out of their habitat into plantations and villages where they are at risk of being killed.
“We don’t know how many orangutans we have lost in this crisis, but we know that this is going to be devastating for orangutan populations in the wild and could mean that orangutans will soon be closer to extinction.”
Among the orangutans rescued by IAR during this year’s fires were a mother and infant who had sought refuge from the burning forests in a rubber tree plantation. “Once they had been anaesthetised, both mother and youngster were assessed to be in fairly good condition, but both had burns on their feet indicating that at some point they had been forced to cross a field still full of burning embers,” Sanchez said.
“This is a global environmental crisis and it is already considered by experts as the worst man-made ecological disaster of the century, which will affect the lives of people the world over.”
The BOS Foundation’s team in Nyaru Menteng has been involved in numerous rescue missions to save orangutans affected by the fires. One of the rescued primates – an adult male discovered on a local farm in Tumbang Nusa village in the Pulang Pisau Regency on October 22 – was underweight, malnourished, and severely dehydrated, and had a wound on his left eye that most likely occurred while he was fleeing through the trees to escape the fires.
The orangutan was taken to Nyaru Menteng for medical attention, but his left eye had become so badly infected it had to be surgically removed.
Several rescues were carried out in the Pulang Pisau Regency, where there were numerous reports of orangutans fleeing from burnt areas of forest.
“Rescue missions in this regency were challenging as we had to track the individuals very close to areas that were still on fire,” said Monterado Fridman, the BOS Foundation’s communication and education coordinator in Nyaru Menteng.
“Searching in the heavy smoke is tough. You can hardly breathe or see. Things become even more challenging when you are faced with an attack from a panicked mother sun bear.”
At Samboja Lestari in East Kalimantan, the BOS Foundation lost 200 hectares of land, including an arboretum where it had been planting trees for about a decade. The fire came dangerously close to the newly built orangutan enclosures. The Samboja Lestari area was also engulfed by fire on August 31 and September 1, and thirty acres of rehabilitated forest were destroyed.
One of the hardest hit areas has been the Sabangau peat forest. On October 14, Simon Husson, who co-founded the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (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,” he said at the time. “Worryingly, we are now fighting three fires that are close to camp. Our team have been battling through the night and will not stop until these fires are extinguished.”
Who is to blame?
While blame has been levelled at palm oil companies, and large and small companies have clearly had fires blazing on their concessions, Erik 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 landowners, rather than large companies as the main cause of fires and haze”.
Meijaard points to a study published in August 2015 in the journal “Environmental Research Letters”, which shows that, on Sumatra, during the 2006 burning season, 59 percent of fire emissions originated from outside timber and oil palm concession boundaries.
These fires that were not on concessions generated nearly 62 percent of smoke exposure in equatorial Southeast Asia (primarily Singapore and Malaysia), Meijaard says.
According to Global Forest Watch data, only three per cent of the hot spots recorded between September 7 and 14 this year 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.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, Security Affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, said the government was determined to punish owners of land where fires were lit. “We apologise for what happened in the past two months,” he said.
In 2013, the then Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, apologised to Malaysians and Singaporeans for the haze caused by forest fires in his country, and said Indonesia was fully responsible for overcoming the problem.
The Singaporean government has made clear its displeasure about what it considers to be inadequate action by the Indonesian government.
There was a storm of criticism when Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, said his country’s neighbours should be grateful for the air quality they enjoy for eleven months of the year.
Data about the fires
- Global Forest Watch Fires has detected more than 127,000 fires across Indonesia this year. This is more than in any year since 1997.
- A total of 1.7 million hectares of forests and plantations have been razed by fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, according to government data.
- Emissions from this year’s fires in Indonesia have reached 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2 – moving Indonesia from being the sixth largest emitter in the world up to the fourth largest in just six weeks.
- Researchers estimate that, on many days in September and October, the CO2 emissions from the fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States. There was a massive spike in emissions on October 14, when 4,719 fires were observed.
GFW fires analyses from 6/11/2015 to 13/11/2015 in Kalimantan
GFW fires analyses from 6/11/2015 to 13/11/2015 on Sumatra
Article updated on 13/11/2015 with analyses from Global Forest Watch.
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