Almost 500,000 men, women and children are choking in the vast smoke clouds thrown up into the skies by Indonesia’s wildfire epidemic.NASA satellites have pinpointed 358 fire hotspots in the last week alone as the flames rage through fields, scrub and into the precious rainforests.
By the day the death toll of fire-fighters rises.
At least 19 have been killed by blazes that move faster than a man can run. Indonesia’s tragedy is the horrifying consequence of slash-and-burn farming and the impacts of an El Niño weather system that has turned the land into a tinderbox.
Together, they have created unstoppable fire storm that has coated thousands of square miles in a deadly shroud of smoke that is impacting on millions of lives.Warships have been put on alert to evacuate children from the worst areas where the toxic smoke hovers and schools and offices are being shutdown.
Flights have been cancelled and it is predicted that Indonesia’s faltering economy could suffer £32 billion losses, around four per cent of its GDP.
For Indonesia, an emerging Far East powerhouse, the fires are also creating diplomatic friction with neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
The fire is one of the worst environmental disasters in living memory
On a global scale, the pollution is elevating the country into one of the world is highest producers of climate change carbon emissions.Experts have calculated the fires this year have pumped 1.62 billion tonnes CO2 into the atmosphere.
Out of 38 days of the last eight weeks, the fires have released more greenhouse gas pollution than the US economy.
For Indonesia’s security chief Luhut Panjaitan, tasked by President Joko Widodo to handle the government’s response to the disaster, shortcomings in weather predictions meant the country was not expecting a firestorm worse than the 1997 disaster.
Those fires were regarded as the largest forest conflagrations for more than two centuries, but as this year’s infernos continue to rage, Panjaitan is blaming the country’s weathermen for getting it wrong.
Indonesia’s wildfire epidemic puts almost 500,000 men, women and children at risk
“I must admit there was a mistake in the BMKG (Indonesia’s state weather agency) forecast that didn’t predict El Niño this year would be worse than 1997. Our forecast was wrong,” he said.Across the Java Sea from fire-ravaged Borneo, farmers pray for deliverance from the drought.
Dressed as traditional warriors, men take turn to battle with wooden staves as village women chant: “All farmers let us pray that rain comes and washes our sorrow away.”
The El Niño, a complex Pacific climatic phenomenon, has left Indonesia needing the rains to feed its 250 million population as well as bolstering the economy to stop more of its people slipping into poverty.
For President Widodo, the first of its leaders from humble roots, poverty reduction has been a major, now bringing the devastating fires to a halt is his consuming priority.
NASA satellites have pinpointed 358 fire hotspots in the last week alone
He cut short an official visit to the USA and is now considering whether to declare a national emergency.A review of laws that allows farmers to burn up to five acres (two hectares) of land is also underway.
Farmers can slash and burn land to grow crops but both environmentalists and plantation owners say this is the key cause to the annual cycles of fires, made all the worse by this autumn’s El Niño.“We support our government’s initiative to revise the provisional laws that allow small-holder farmers to clear up to two hectares of forested land by burning,” said Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability at Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).
I must admit there was a mistake in the BMKG (Indonesia’s state weather agency) forecast that didn’t predict El Niño this year would be worse than 1997
“But a multi-stakeholder initiative to support the local farmer and community must be initiated in parallel. The key here is to assist the farmers and the community in developing their land responsibly without burning.”
At least 19 have been killed by blazes that move faster than a man can run
But Greenpeace has thrown down a challenge to the plantation industry. It says its analysis shows that deforestation and peatland drainage by pulp and palm oil companies is the root cause of the haze crisis.“There can be no question that the root cause of the fires crisis is decades of forest and peatland destruction by pulp and palm oil companies.. These fires and the toxic haze will return year after year until plantation companies turn off their bulldozers.
“Businesses, must demonstrate serious efforts to work together to prevent forest fires by stamping out this reckless destruction and start protecting rainforests and peatlands,” said Teguh Surya, Indonesia Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
As the fires rage, the innocents suffer. Children choke.
Indonesia’s tragedy is the horrifying consequence of slash-and-burn farming