The decision by President Joko Widodo to cut short an important trip to the United States to return to Indonesia early to take personal charge of attempts to quell wildfires and peatland hot spots could – if you’re an optimist – be the inflection point in the country’s unenviable direction in destroying its forest cover and blanketing the entire region in smoke.
As a fleet of airplanes from as far away as the US, Australia and Russia dive-bomb the flames with water and retardant, the crisis has grown so great that the choking smoke could delay local elections slated for Dec. 9 in Indonesia and has generated a public health crisis Jokowi, as the president is known, aborted a groundbreaking trip to the US to meet President Barack Obama to discuss liberalizing trade and investment between the two countries, including an agreement to join the long-stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. One of the topics discussed with the US chief executive was Indonesia’s problems with greenhouse gas production.
The fires this year, spurred partly by the El Nino phenomenon, which has brought drought to Southeast Asia’s forests, are said to be the worst since at least 2006 when half a million hectares were cleared by burning, for the first time spurring a regional consensus that something has to be done to stop the forest degradation and clean the region’s skies during the burning season, which isn’t expected to end until sometime in December.
Large areas of forest in Kalimantan and Sumatra have been cleared by multinational oil palm and pulp and paper companies, to be replaced by plantations, the timber from the clearings shipped to China and Japan. Although such agribusiness interests as Asia Pulp and Paper have caught most of the blame, much of the fires are started by smallholders as well. Fires often destroy carbon sinks, peat bogs which are some of the world’s most critical repositories of carbon.
With hundreds of thousands of hectares on fire, this year Indonesia has contributed more greenhouse emissions to the global atmosphere than the entire US economy, according to the World Resources Institute. Data from the Global Fire Emissions Database showed that Indonesia’s carbon emissions have surpassed 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent.
“More conspicuously, the fires have triggered a spasm of air pollution that has mushroomed into a domestic health emergency and regional political crisis for Indonesia, with Indonesian companies seeing their products pulled from store shelves and facing multimillion dollar fines from the Singaporean government,” according to Rhett Butler, the founder of the Mongabay environmental NGO. “That reaction comes on top of a steep dive in the Indonesian rupiah and a commodity market rout that has hit some of the country’s biggest exports, including oil, coal, palm oil, and rubber. These are dark days – literally and figuratively – for Indonesia.”