NPR logo As Indonesia's Annual Fires Rage, Plenty Of Blame But No Responsibility

As Indonesia's Annual Fires Rage, Plenty Of Blame But No Responsibility

Indonesian men fight a fire, one of many in Sumatra. Indonesia's government blames both big palm oil companies and small freeholders for the fires, but others say corrupt politicians also are to blame. i

Indonesian men fight a fire, one of many in Sumatra. Indonesia's government blames both big palm oil companies and small freeholders for the fires, but others say corrupt politicians also are to blame. Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty Images
Indonesian men fight a fire, one of many in Sumatra. Indonesia's government blames both big palm oil companies and small freeholders for the fires, but others say corrupt politicians also are to blame.

Indonesian men fight a fire, one of many in Sumatra. Indonesia's government blames both big palm oil companies and small freeholders for the fires, but others say corrupt politicians also are to blame.

Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty Images

The onset of the rainy season in Indonesia brings hope of extinguishing forest fires that have raged for weeks, spawning both an environmental and political crisis in Southeast Asia's largest economy.

This crisis, which recurs every year to some extent, extends deep into the country's politics and economics — and neither its causes nor symptoms will be easy to cure.

According to the World Resources Institute, the fires are emitting nearly 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a day — more than the entire U.S., whose economy is 20 times the size of Indonesia's.

Nineteen have died from haze-related respiratory illness, haze which can be seen spreading over huge swathes of Indonesia in satellite photos.

The haze from Indonesia's fires has spread to countries including Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings were shrouded in late October. i

The haze from Indonesia's fires has spread to countries including Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings were shrouded in late October. Joshua Paul/AP hide caption

toggle caption Joshua Paul/AP
The haze from Indonesia's fires has spread to countries including Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings were shrouded in late October.

The haze from Indonesia's fires has spread to countries including Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings were shrouded in late October.

Joshua Paul/AP

Half a million people have suffered acute respiratory infections and 43 million have been exposed to the smoke. Several provinces have already declared emergencies, and Indonesia is considering declaring a national state of emergency in order to deploy resources to fight the fires.

That decision is up to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, who cut short a state visit to the U.S. last week to return home and deal with the fires.

The most serious blazes are on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and are caused by illegal destruction of forests and carbon-rich peat lands to make way for pulpwood and palm oil plantations. These produce everyday consumer products such as copy paper, cookies and lipstick.

However, some observers are hopeful that the crisis holds seeds of opportunity.

"I really feel this is an opportunity for Jokowi to take control and lead the country in a different direction," says Scott Poynton, executive director of the Forest Trust. "But the country's got to have a long, hard strategic look at the way it develops its land-based industries."

An Indonesian soldier helps firefighters and rescue teams at a peat land fire in Kalimantan. i

An Indonesian soldier helps firefighters and rescue teams at a peat land fire in Kalimantan. Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov
An Indonesian soldier helps firefighters and rescue teams at a peat land fire in Kalimantan.

An Indonesian soldier helps firefighters and rescue teams at a peat land fire in Kalimantan.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov

Jokowi is Indonesia's first president with a track record of efficient local governance in running two large cities. Strong action on the haze issue could help fulfill the promise of reform that motivated Indonesian voters to put him in office in October 2014.

The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.

"It must be stopped, we mustn't allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palms," Widodo said early in his administration.

Land recently burned and  planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan. i

Land recently burned and planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan. Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov
Land recently burned and  planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan.

Land recently burned and planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov

The problem of Indonesia's illegal forest fires is so complex that it's very hard to say exactly who is responsible for causing it.

Indonesia's government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies' concessions.

"There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, 'You get in there and clear the land, and I'll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,' " he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

"The disaster is not in the fires," says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. "It's in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster."

Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.

A mother sits with her son, recovering from a respiratory illness in an Indonesian hospital. More than half a million Indonesians are suffering from respiratory ailments resulting from the country's fires. i

A mother sits with her son, recovering from a respiratory illness in an Indonesian hospital. More than half a million Indonesians are suffering from respiratory ailments resulting from the country's fires. Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov
A mother sits with her son, recovering from a respiratory illness in an Indonesian hospital. More than half a million Indonesians are suffering from respiratory ailments resulting from the country's fires.

A mother sits with her son, recovering from a respiratory illness in an Indonesian hospital. More than half a million Indonesians are suffering from respiratory ailments resulting from the country's fires.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/Landov

One of the biggest fiascoes was a result of the notorious Mega Rice Project, launched in 1996 by military strongman and longtime president Suharto. It destroyed nearly 2,000 square miles of peat forests and led to devastating fires and massive carbon emissions. The purpose was to produce rice — but none was grown.

The haze has also become a regional embarrassment, closing airports and schools in nearby Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Singapore's government has threatened legal action against individuals and companies starting the fires.

But, observers point out, Singapore and Malaysia are complicit in the problem, too. Many palm oil companies are headquartered there — and Singapore banks finance much of the business.

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