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Indonesia’s haze from forest fires kills 110,000 people per year

Forest destruction in Riau Province, Indonesia on 06/23/2013. Greenpeace is calling on concession holders to urgently extinguish fires on their land, immediately stop the drainage and development on peat and natural forests and ensure palm oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction.

Forest destruction in Riau Province, Indonesia on 06/23/2013. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.

Haze caused by burning peat forests in Indonesia kills an average of 110,000 people per year and up to 300,000 during el Niño events, while releasing hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warns a new report from Greenpeace. Sumatra: Going up in smoke argues that peatland and forest protection are the best way to protect the region from the effects of haze.

The report focuses on Riau, a province that lies just across the Strait of Malacca from Singapore and accounts for 75 percent of all peat fires despite representing only 5 percent of Indonesia’s land mass.

Greenpeace notes that since Indonesia’s moratorium on new forest concessions was signed in 2011, 30 percent of hotspots have been recorded in areas that were supposedly protected by the regulation. Peat forests are five times more likely to burn than conventional forests.

A timber plantation owned by an Asia Pulp & Paper supplier that was destroyed by peat fires in March 2014. The fire burned some 4,000 hectares of acacia. Its origin is unknown. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Riau is ground zero for Indonesia’s plantation sectors, including industrial timber and oil palm plantations. Expansion of these industries has contributed to the province losing more than 85 percent of its primary forests — and 55 percent of its total forest cover — since 1990. The province has also had vast areas of peatlands drained for plantations, turning its soils into a tinderbox.

“Tropical rainforests, including those on peat, do not typically burn. However, forest clearance and drainage increases the vulnerability of forests to fires, and burning is often used to clear such areas,” says the report. “While degraded tropical forests and peatlands might release their stores of carbon over decades, burning releases carbon into the atmosphere rapidly, as well as damaging the capacity of the ecosystem to recover and begin to absorb more carbon again.”

In Riau’s case, there is a lot of carbon that could be lost into the atmosphere: by one estimate, its peat soils store nearly 60 billion tons of carbon, or 40 percent of the total stored across Indonesia’s peatlands. That represents more than a year of current global greenhouse gas emissions.

An excavator creates a canal in Riau Province, Indonesia, despite the heavy smoke caused by the forest fires. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Therefore Greenpeace argues that if Indonesia is serious about addressing haze, it needs to protect peatlands.

“How President SBY deals with this emerging global threat and public health emergency will define his green legacy,” said Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in a statement. Will he take urgent action to strengthen laws that protect all forest and peatland before his term is up, or will he see his legacy go up in smoke?”

“We urge SBY to issue a strong regulation that protects all peatlands before his term is up, and help diffuse what is quickly becoming a carbon time bomb,” he added.

An oil palm plantation that was burned to the ground during recent fires in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Peatlands degradation is not only putting lives at risk — it is literally causing parts of Indonesia to sink. Research by Tropenbos and the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IBP) suggests that continued drainage could cause subsidence of up to 3.5 meters (11 feet) in some areas. That combined with rising sea levels could swamp vast areas in Riau and beyond. Local communities would be particularly affected.

To highlight these impacts, Greenpeace also released a short documentary featuring families in Riau.

With the dry season approaching and signs pointing to a looming el Niño event, which typically exacerbates drought and fires, Greenpeace says it is stepping up vigilance.

“[We] will be calling out companies involved in peat clearance and forest fires,” the group said.

A burned-out APP timber plantation. The origin of the fire is unknown. Fires within pulp and paper plantations can inflict substantial losses for owners. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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