There's something big going on in Indonesia's rain forests. As Margaret Badore wrote over on sister site TreeHugger, a wildfire is currently raging in Indonesia that's emitting more CO2 than the entire U.S. economy. That's a very bad thing.
Draining peat bogs
Stemming from fires that are deliberately lit each year to clear land for palm oil plantations, the fires are often exacerbated by the fact that farmers drain underlying peat bogs of water — creating a combustible underground fuel source that will keep burning until rains douse it out. (Remember, peat was and is used as a heating fuel in many parts of the world.) While rains can often be relied on in most years to put out these deliberately lit fires after a few weeks, this year's fires have spiraled out of control due to an unusually strong El Niño effect in the Pacific Ocean that has led to a dry spell over the Indonesian rain forests. Given that peat fires in Russia have been known to smolder underground over winter, it would seem wise to do all we can to prevent peat fires in the first place.
So what's to be done?
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Focusing conservation efforts
Vox has an interesting article on the fires, pointing out that while only half of the fires are burning on peat land, those peat lands are responsible for a much larger magnitude of emissions due to the carbon that's stored underground. So conservationists are suggesting that the Indonesian government needs to focus its conservation and fire prevention efforts first and foremost on the country's peat lands — diverting canals to "rewet" peat bogs that have previously been drained, and restricting or eliminating the clearance of peat land in particular for palm oil plantations. (These measures were advocated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in a recent climate meeting with President Obama.)
A ditch that was used to drain peatland before setting fire to it, clearing the land for palm oil plantations. (Photo: Hayden/flickr)
Utilizing degraded lands
The other solution to these huge fires is, quite simply, to stop clearing new land for palm oil plantations. While it's true that palm oil demand has rocketed in recent years, researchers have identified large areas of degraded land that are being left uncultivated — even as palm oil farmers clear virgin forest simply because it's cheaper and easier to do.
Corporations clean up
Luckily, as awareness of the impact of palm oil plantations has grown, there has been considerable progress in recent years to force big palm oil users to clean up their supply chains. And there has also been some progress in recognizing the economic value of forests left standing. Yet while some corporations are either eliminating palm oil or buying only from reputable sources, Vox also points out that there's a huge industry of small holders and "informal" palm oil farmers who may be more resistant to or suspicious of regulation than their larger corporate counterparts who have their reputations to think about.
With that in mind, it's crucial that any solutions to the peat fire crisis also take into account land reform, fair access to plantation land, as well as efforts to curb corruption — all of which can exacerbate pressure to burn virgin forest.
Public awareness grows
The other pressure which may cause changes in policy is the sheer weight of public opinion. While the connected political classes have often profited from deforestation in the past, the air quality and health impacts of this year's fires are causing many Indonesians to call for change. And pressure is coming from other countries too. In Singapore, consumers are being told that "we breathe what we buy," urging them to shop more selectively and pressuring companies to change. Similarly, social media sites in many neighboring countries were lit up already back in September (no pun intended) by users furious about the return of "the haze," pouring scorn and outrage on Indonesia for failing to prevent what has become an annual occurrence. Given how long this year's fires have burned, it seems a fair bet that neighbors won't forgive and forget so easily this year.
Given the magnitude of this year's fires, and the likely fact that climate change will exacerbate fire risk in the future, there's no single quick fix for Indonesia's wildfires. There is, however, a newfound global focus on the problem. (English environmentalist George Monbiot has slammed the world's media for turning a blind eye in the past.)
So let's hope that all this talk can lead to a lasting change.