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How Indonesia's fires became one of the world's biggest climate disasters

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

One of the worst eco-disasters on the planet is currently unfolding in Indonesia. Over the past two months, thousands of forest and peatland fires have been raging out of control, choking the entire region in a thick, toxic haze.

The enormous smoke columns can be seen from space. NASA snapped this satellite pic of peat fires in Borneo on October 19:

Heavy smoke from peat fires in Borneo, Indonesia on October 19, 2015. (NASA Earth Observatory)

The fires themselves have been a public-health nightmare, forcing multiple evacuations, killing at least 19, and triggering respiratory illnesses in more than half a million people. Noxious haze and harmful particulate pollution has stretched as far as Malaysia and Singapore.

It's also terrible for climate change. So far this year, these fires have released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all the fossil fuels burned annually in Germany. On at least 38 days in September and October, Indonesia's fires were spewing more daily emissions than the entire United States economy.**

(World Resources Institute)

Calamitous fires in Indonesia are nothing new. They typically break out every year during the dry season that runs from July to October. But this year is on track to be one of the worst ever recorded, with nearly 120,000 active fires detected already. So what's going on?

Why Indonesia's fires have been so bad in 2015

For decades, Indonesia's farmers have been intentionally setting fires to clear away rainforest for farmland and produce commodities like palm oil, a popular ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, and biodiesel fuel. The country's small farmers are legally allowed to burn up to 2 hectares, though enforcement is lax, and experts say many people set fires illegally to grab extra land.

The real problems start when these fires occur in areas rich in peat, a dense, soil-like mixture of partially decayed leaves and branches. Fires in these peatlands can proliferate uncontrollably, smoldering underground for weeks, feeding off the soil, releasing toxic pollutants and vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane all the while. Peat fires often don't stop until heavy rains come along to extinguish them.

(World Resources Institute)

This year's season has been especially brutal because there's been little rain to halt those fires. For that, blame the gigantic El Niño brewing in the Pacific Ocean, which has led to an unusually severe dry spell in Indonesia. (A similarly large El Niño in 1997 also led to a staggeringly large fire season.)

"In many years, these fires might only last for a week or two," says Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests program at the World Resources Institute. "This time, they've lasted almost two months."

Indonesia's fire problem is the result of years of poor policy

Firefighters Attempt To Extinguish Indonesia Forest Fires Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

I had called up Sizer to ask him to walk me through the origins of Indonesia's fire crisis and what could be done to fix it. He told me you have to start with the country's long history of mismanaging its lands.

"Start 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "You had these big swaths of land and forests that were handed out by [Indonesia's then-dictator] Suharto and his cronies as part of his political patronage network. That resulted in massive land grabs, which in turn created the basis for the major pulp and paper and palm oil conglomerates. Today, Indonesia is a democracy, but you still see a similar pattern of poor governance, corruption, and patronage at national and local levels. Land still changes hands based on who you know rather than how well you manage it."

Poor land management has caused all sorts of problems. In an ideal world, Indonesia would have blocked off the richest peatlands in places like Sumatra and Borneo from agricultural development — those are, after all, the areas that cause the most havoc when they catch fire. But Indonesia has done the opposite, awarding some 14 million hectares of palm oil concessions on peat-rich land over the years. Many politicians today concede this was a huge mistake.

Here's a map from 2011 showing the spread of palm oil plantations across the peatlands of Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysia;

Distribution of closed canopy oil palm plantations and tropical peatlands in the lowlands of Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra. (

As farmers clear away trees and drain the marshes in these regions, all this peat becomes dried out, more easily able to catch fire. Throw in a bunch of people setting fires to clear out vegetation for farmland, and you have a major conflagration just waiting to happen.

Compounding the problem, the government hasn't been able to enforce what rules it does have to protect these forest areas. Legally, small farmers are allowed to burn up to 2 hectares for their own use. But unscrupulous entrepreneurs can easily hijack these rules to clear even more land for larger palm oil plantations. Sometimes they'll hire middlemen to recruit a bunch of poor people into an area and start burning. Other times they'll illegally start fires in the hopes that they'll expand uncontrollably. In many cases, these entrepreneurs have support from local elites and corrupt local politicians.

"It's often very hard to tell," says Sizer, "is this a small farmer legally setting a fire to clear land, or is it a guy who’s been paid by a middleman, paid by local government, hoping that the fire gets out of control?"

The result: Lots of people are setting illegal fires, and a lot of these fires are occurring on dried-out peatland, which in turn had led to the destructive smog currently engulfing Indonesia and its neighbors.

Is there any way to fix Indonesia's fire crisis?

Seeds of palm oil are harvested at a plantation in Rokan Hilir Seeds of palm oil are harvested at a plantation in Rokan Hilir (Dimas Ardian/Getty Images)

Last week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo emphasized a couple of big steps to get the nation's perennial fire crisis under control. Encouragingly, Sizer points out, those steps are in line with what experts have been recommending for years. The big question is whether the government actually follows through.

First, Widodo said, Indonesia needs to stop allowing more development on peatlands, and the government should look into canceling some existing licenses on those lands. He also called for the diversion of canals for the "rewetting" of peatlands, which would help restore those ecosystems to their natural state, limiting fires and sequestering all that carbon.

This step, if enacted and strictly enforced, could go a long way toward curbing the worst fire outbreaks. "Roughly half the current fires are burning on peat, and emissions of fires on peat are orders of magnitude bigger [than non-peat fires]," Sizer says. "So addressing that relatively small landscape would dramatically diminish the problem."

It would also help put Indonesia's palm oil industry on a more sustainable footing. As demand for palm oil in the West has soared in recent years, Indonesia's farmers have cleared an area the size of Taiwan, leading to widespread rainforest losses and driving Sumatran tigers and orangutans to near-extinction. In theory, this shouldn't have to happen. Analysts have identified plenty of already-degraded land throughout Indonesia that would be suitable for palm-oil plantations; no deforestation or further peat degradation necessary. The trick, however, is that it's often difficult for companies to actually move into these areas: Sizer notes that getting the right type of licenses can be prohibitively complex. In many cases, it's easier to just hack down pristine forests.

Another notable proposal Widodo has been pursuing: a "one map" initiative that would clarify land ownership throughout Indonesia, helping to resolve recurring land conflicts (another underlying cause of the fires), standardize mapping, and rationalize ownership. This move, if combined with more stringent enforcement, could help improve the rule of law and prevent illegal clearing.

Of course, if fixing the problem were that simple, it would've been done years ago. The hitch here is that any reform efforts are likely to face strident opposition from some corners.

One key thing to understand is that Indonesia's palm oil industry is divided between two broad segments. First, there are the really large plantations and multinational palm oil traders like Wilmar and Cargill. These companies have been facing heavy public pressure from Western activists and consumers to make the palm oil industry more sustainable. Recently, Wilmar, which oversees roughly 50 percent of the global trade, pledged not to buy palm oil from anyone who had recently cleared rainforest or drained peatlands. So these bigger companies are likely to support clearer rules and enforcement.

But there's another segment of the industry that isn't so keen on reforms: the smaller and medium-size growers, as well as local political elites who make a lot of money from the status quo and benefit from illegal and informal production. (By some accounts, about 40 percent of palm oil production is from smallholders, much of it illicit.) That group, Sizer notes, is likely to resist a major revamping of forestry rules.

It also remains to be seen whether Widodo's push for reform will sputter out once the fire season quiets down. On October 26, heavy rains finally opened up on the island of Kalimantan, which dampened fires there and began washing toxic (some) smog out of the air. That hasn't fully tamed the fire outbreaks across the country, but it's helped.

The crucial thing, Sizer says, "is that we don't forget about all this once the rains finally move in." In past severe fire seasons, he notes, "there's always lots media coverage and promises to fix things, but eventually the fires die out, everyone moves on to other things, and people forget. Hopefully this time it was so serious, that that won’t happen."

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** A note on emissions: Normally, the CO2 that gets released by a wildfire is reabsorbed when all the vegetation grows back, so the net effect on climate change is fairly minimal. But that's not true if a) forest area is being permanently cleared for farming, as it often is in Indonesia, or b) the fire burns through peat, which contain a vast store of carbon and methane that have built up over many, many years. In those cases, the net effect will be to exacerbate global warming.

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