Ring the Alarm

On our jaunt home from Bali early last month, Oliver and I remarked on the unusually smoggy weather on display during a layover in Kuala Lumpur; from the terminal shuttle window, a thick fog muddled the view of everything in sight—palm trees blurry and whatever was in the distance was left to our imaginations. Only later did we realize that the pervasive haze was actually the result of forests and peatlands being torched in neighboring Indonesia.

Freshly planted palm oil seedlings on recently burned land.
Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

These annual fires occur in part for the purpose of clearing land for agriculture use and palm oil plantations. Some experts have also cited the routine of setting fires simply out of habit (for the purpose of burning household garbage, food waste, etc.) or “just for fun” as additional contributors to the flames. Many of these fires are burning peatlands, which is especially concerning due to the immense stores of carbon and methane that peat accumulates over time, and the higher CO2 emission intensity of peat (106 g CO2/MJ) compared to other sources, such as coal (94.6 g CO2/MJ).

Adding to the complexity of this calamity is the confusion over land and resource ownership, which is spurring conflict between individuals and farms, and continuing to make enforcement and accountability of proper land management difficult. With ineffective national government regulation, these fires—already causing more than “500,000 cases of haze-related respiratory illness in Southeast Asia and the deaths of at least 19 Indonesians”—continue to have direct consequences not only for the Indonesian people and their neighbors, but also for our planet.

Writing for The Guardian, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot details the magnitude of damages from these man-made fires still raging in Indonesia today:

“It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany….Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.”

Daily Emissions from Indonesian Fires

Without action on the part of the Indonesian national government, this problem is likely to re-emerge as a destructive force on a yearly basis. Business as Usual isn’t going to cut it if we’re to truly make an impact on reducing CO2 emissions in order to curb the rate of climate change and its ever-reaching effects.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Consume responsibly

Our consumer choices have consequences. Support companies that value sustainable business practices in the communities they influence. Palm oil is present in an array of everyday products ranging from shampoo and detergent to chocolate and bread, and can be found in “about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket.” Inform yourself about which companies are reforming their supply chains (you can feel less guilty about indulging in Krispy Kreme) and refrain from buying products made by those that aren’t–PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever are among the laggards.

2. Bring attention to the issue

The World Climate Summit will bring government and multinational corporate leaders across the globe to Paris this December and the more attention we bring to these forest fires, the more likely it is that this issue will be on the table of discussion. Share this post (shameless self-promotion) or any of the other informative sources found here on social media. Research the issue on your own and write about it yourself. Read The Snack Food 20 Report Card and write to the companies that aren’t taking sufficient action. Collectively, we can put pressure on the Indonesian government to restrict deforestation—spread the word.

Or, spread the photos.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

3. Financial support

Donate to organizations that are devoted to conservation efforts and advocate for smarter policies related to climate change. Remember, your donation to many organizations, including the two below, is tax-deductible.

Rainforest Action Network – They are committed to protecting the world’s rain forests and its incredible species. Join as a member with a one-time donation or dedicate yourself to contributing monthly.

World Wildlife Fund The WWF has a new project partnering with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project focusing on protecting Sumatra’s rain forest and its wildlife.

Recommended further reading:

Global Forest Watch Profile on Indonesia – A collection of data on the economic value of, employment reliance on, and changes overtime (depletion and gain) to the forests of Indonesia.

Project Potico – The WRI’s fact sheet on the palm oil industry in Indonesia and its push towards sustainable planting practices for companies by using already degraded land rather than clearing forests.

Project Potico Info.Click for full view.

3 Ways Obama Could Help – Different organizations and governments are working to put pressure on Indonesian President Joko Widodo to push for forestry reforms (and stick to enforcing them even after the fires burn out). Scientists from the World Resources Institute, alongside the WRI-Indonesia director, offer possibilities for the U.S. to support improved land management practices in Indonesia.

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