For the past two months nearly 100,000 fires have been burning in the forests of Indonesia. As the fires have spread, more than 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of land has been burnt, producing a toxic haze that has covered vast areas of Sumatra and Borneo, and reaching farther afield to Malaysia, Singapore and even Thailand. The smoke is now cause for such concern that Indonesia has put warships on standby in case it needs to evacuate the country when hospitals can no longer cope with the number of patients seeking help.
While forest fires are an ongoing issue in Indonesia, with 2006 also a particularly bad year, this time around the problem has been exasperated by the ongoing El Niño, that is also wreaking havoc on the other side of the Pacific, though nowhere near to the same extent. The El Niño has dried out the forests and peat bogs on which they grow, making them a tinder box just waiting to go up in flames. Even once the surface flames have gone out though, the peat can continue burning and smouldering away meters underground.
#Indonesia's Fire Crisis ~ #Environment Crime of Century ~ https://t.co/08f5LKjhhv #forests #orangutans #extinction pic.twitter.com/dWYfkBgKxx
— EcoInteractive (@EcoInteractive) October 23, 2015
The reasons for the fires are thought to be a mixture of locals and big palm oil companies practicing illegal slash and burn to clear the land of rainforest so that they can plant vast swaths of palms to feed the ever-growing demand of the oil derived from its fruit. This oil is used in a massive range of products, from chocolate to shampoo, and is among the leading causes of deforestation and destruction of rainforests and peat forests in Southeast Asia.
Despite Indonesia sending 22,000 troops to try and get the fires under control, the resultant haze of smoke and particles has engulfed other countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. Worst hit are areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, where the Pollutant Standards Index hit a record high of 2,300. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous to health. It’s thought that around 43 million people have been breathing in the toxic haze, with half a million being admitted for respiratory problems, though this is almost certainly a vast underestimate. This has led to claims by some that the fires represent a crime against humanity.
Indonesia's forest fires threaten a third of world's wild orangutans https://t.co/jPfwV4NGIo via @guardianeco pic.twitter.com/5Nz4PJjjFl
— Irina Tikhomirova (@IrinaGreenVoice) October 26, 2015
The Indonesian government has been heavily criticized for its lack of action and, even where it has acted, the inadequacy of it. The situation is now so bad that the Malaysian Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, has admitted that it is probably not possible for humans to now bring the fires under control, and that aside from managing what is currently burning, all anyone can do is wait for the rains to come, hopefully in mid-November.
But it’s not just people who are threatened by the all-engulfing haze. Wildlife has been driven out of some its few remaining refuges, with some reports suggesting that as the fires have moved into more remote and denser rainforest, up to a third of the remaining wild orangutans are now at risk. Even in the forest thought to house the world’s largest population of the apes there have been over 300 fires reported. Apart from trying to save the orangutans found fleeing these regions, there is agonizingly little that can be done.