It appears to have escaped much of the western media that right now, one of the gravest environmental crimes this century is taking place in the rain forests of Indonesia. Due to slash and burn agriculture that clears land for new plantations, an unusually long dry summer and the effects of El Niño, forest fires are raging across the country creating catastrophic damage to all plant and animal life in the region.
Not only are there mass respiratory infections in the human population (up to half a million cases have now been reported), but untold damage is being done to fragile eco systems and rare species that have been forced to either flee their natural habitats or die. The fire has raged for over two months, and the Indonesian government is proving woefully inadequate in responding to it.
Make no mistake about it, this is not only a disaster for Indonesia, but the planet itself. According to VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the forest fires in Indonesia have now created the annual CO2 emissions of Japan, or roughly 1.35 gigatons of carbon dioxide. As Chris Mooney in the Washington Postpoints out:
A gigaton is a billion metric tons, and the planet is estimated have less than 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide left to emit to have a two-thirds chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
In other words, this speeds up the planet's already rapid trajectory towards climate disaster.
This has been made worse by the fact that the forests lie on great tracts of peat, which creates an even more devastating effect to the environment when burned. Reports the National Geographic:
Much of Southeast Asia is blanketed with thick smoke from peat fires in Indonesia that are expected to smolder for months. An estimated 40 million Indonesians in five provinces are breathing the soot, and the government is expected to declare a national emergency.
When peat, a marshy material, burns, it spews “far more smoke and air pollution than most other types of fires,” according to NASA, which warns that the Asian fires are likely to worsen and spread vast distances.
This enormous catastrophe is a direct result of human activity on the land. Although widely practiced in human societies throughout history, slash and burn agriculture is now known to be environmentally toxic and needs to be eliminated quickly should we want to survive as a species. Not only does slash and burn agriculture pave the way for uncontrollable forest fires, the technique of cutting vegetation and burning it to create nutrient rich ash for monoculture works only in the short term and has an ecologically devastating impact in the long term. After the nutrients are used up (after roughly two years), farmers then move on new land and destroy more indigenous eco systems to make way for their crops. This has a toxi impact on the soil - the substance vital for sustaining all life on the planet. According to the World Wildlife Fund:
Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. In addition to erosion, soil quality is affected by other aspects of agriculture. These impacts include compaction, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and soil salinity. These are very real and at times severe issues.
The effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land. It has led to increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding.
Despite the devastating effect of slash and burn agriculture on the environment both in terms of soil erosion and the potential to create fires, we have yet to learn from our past mistakes and appear doomed to repeat them over and over again. In 1997, Indonesia suffered disastrous forest fires due to slash and burn agriculture that burned for almost a year, destroying roughly 8 million hectares of land and emitting anywhere from 0.81 and 2.57 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. The fact that we are facing a similar catastrophe only 18 years later is in and of itself an unforgivable crime.
While there needs to be dramatic, intergovernmental action to stem the current destruction and prevent disasters like this happening again, there are some actions we can take individually that could potentially have an impact:
1. Stop buying from companies that use palm oil. Write George Monbiot at the Guardian:
Our leverage is weak, but there are some things we can do. Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move more slowly and opaquely. Starbucks, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz are examples. Don’t buy their products until you see results.
2. You can sign Green Peace's letterto Indonesian president Joko Widodo and the traders, buyers and CEOs of the palm oil industry asking them to "implement an industry-wide ban on trade with companies that destroy forests and peatlands".
3. Join SOS Indonesia & Sumatra Wildlife & Rain-Forest TWEETSTORMhosted by Protecting Endangered Species, and tweet to put pressure on world governments to stop to the destruction rain forests around the world.
4. Join movements to help move consumption away from palm oil. A great website Say No to Palm Oil has some tips on actions you can take.
5. Spread the word via social media. If the mainstream media won't make this headline news, you can do it yourself by spreading awareness of the issue on social media. Awareness is key if we want to create sustained, global action against environmental destruction, so do your bit and alert friends and family as to what is going on in Indonesia.