Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Forest Fires in South East Asia

by Ted Ellis

The aftermath of a forest fire in Sumatra, 2013
(photograph: Greenpeace)

This summer in June forest fires raged again in the Indonesian country of Sumatra. Now becoming somewhat of a "tradition", such is their increasing regularity, these annual blazes are a major threat to the environment and to the lives and livelihoods of many people. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were covered in thick smog, the worst air pollution ever recorded in South East Asia. The fires damaged the forests of Sumatra, many schools were closed and the very important tourist industry was harmed.

So why are these fires happening? The main reason is the method of forest clearing known as slash and burn: the very traditional technique used for forest clearing. The process involves what is supposed to be controlled use of forest fires to burn away all of the forest vegetation; it has been used for thousands of years. The clearing is for the planting of crops such as palm oil to make money off the land. One of the main issues is that the land in Sumatra where these forests are being burned, is on peats, which burn very ferociously and can even burn underground. The smog experienced in other parts of South East Asia is in large part the result of the vast quantities of smoke and greenhouse gas given off by these fires.

Smog in Malaysia caused by fires in Indonesia
(source: capitalfm)
So why is slash and burn used? The land in Sumatra is often deep within the forests and difficult to access. Therefore, the large machinery required to clear vast amounts of forest is often not an option. This is also hugely expensive and so burning the forest is the quickest and arguably the easiest way to clear it. The burning of all the vegetation also provides a natural fertilizer for the land in the form of ash, which ensures good crops from the land and limits the needs for artificial ones which is a bonus out of the process.

So what is the land being used for? Some of the smaller patches of land are being cleared for the planting of crops. Most of the larger patches, though, are being cleared for palm oil plantations which are sweeping across much of South East Asia’s woodland. These large monocultures greatly reduce biodiversity and destroy animal habitats. The demand for palm oil is booming with its use in food, cosmetics and now even biofuels. According to the World Wildlife Fund "it has been suggested that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour" for palm oil plantations.

Slash and burn is actually an illegal process of deforestation, so who is to blame for the destruction?

Most of the blame belongs to the Indonesian government. They appear to not implement very strongly the laws designed to prevent forest fires and the evidence can clearly be seen in the high levels of smog recently. However, most of the companies that operate these palm oil plantations are actually based in Malaysia and Singapore; however, inquiries have been made and all of the companies have denied any association. Cargill a palm oil company said that it "has a strict no-burn policy and we can confirm that there are no hot spots or fires on our plantations in South Sumatra and West Kalimantan". It’s a similar story for other companies.

What are the health and business disruptions surrounding these (seemingly) annual fires? Hundreds of businesses have lost out due to the fires as a heavy haze and bad smell of smoke has filled many streets. Noticeably fewer people were out in the streets, badly affecting the tourism and businesses in cities like Singapore. It is estimated that between five and six percent of Singapore’s economic output is due to tourism. Usually these smog clouds decrease tourism by around fifteen percent so that’s a total of around two-to-four hundred million dollars lost from the economy.
As well as economic there are serious health risks too. For most people the occasional exposure is barely noticeable but, if individuals are repeatedly exposed to pollutants, lung and breathing issues can occur. People who suffer from asthma or bronchitis could be in serious trouble in areas affected by smog. This can cause attacks and a greatly increased difficulty in breathing. 
Therefore, it is crucial that something is done to end this dangerous and destructive practice. International pressure should be increased on the Indonesian government for allowing these forest fires to be caused, demanding that they solve the growing issue. Economic sanctions and tighter regulations on slash and burn farming should be installed and maybe this will help resolve the issue. 


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