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Papua fires send haze to Micronesia; Indonesia elections commission hints at environment debate

  • The Guam Department for Homeland Security released a health warning after smog reached western Micronesia.
  • Indonesia’s elections commission is facing calls to increase the prominence of the environment in election debates and prepare more information on candidates’ environmental credentials.
  • Schools in Malaysia will remain closed on Tuesday while breathing air in Singapore remained in the “unhealthy” range Monday.

Focus on potentially fatal smog from Indonesia’s wildfires shifted eastward on Monday as meteorologists registered light haze reaching as far as Micronesia. Burning in Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost region, has become increasingly fierce in recent days, canceling flights, damaging air quality for the local population and pushing light pollution into the Pacific.

“Multiple wildfires across Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and southwest winds across western Micronesia have pushed diffuse haze into the Marianas,” the Guam Department for Homeland Security said in a statement on Monday. “As a precaution, those with respiratory issues should limit their time outdoors.”

Flights in several parts of West Papua and Papua provinces, including in Jayapura, Manokwari and Timika, were canceled after visibility dropped to as little as 150 meters in places.

“Almost 80 percent of the smog in Manokwari is coming from fires in Merauke,” Yulson Sinery at the local office of Indonesia’s meterology agency told Mongabay.

Yulson said local pilots had spotted several fires burning in the Arfak mountains.

Sem Padamma, the meteorology agency’s chief in the provincial capital, said smoke was easily visible in Bintuni, the Gulf of Berauw, Manokwari and South Sorong on Sunday.

As fires in Papua brought greater scrutiny on the region, a petition against a vast agricultural development spanning 1.2 million hectares reached more than 122,000 signatures.

“The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), an industrial-scale agricultural project, has been taking shape since 2010,” the petition reads. “In only four to five years, more than one million hectares – a quarter of [Merauke] district – fell into the hands of agricultural corporations that are clearing the land for oil palms, sugarcane and eucalyptus.”

Smoke emerges from a slope on the Wondama Bay in West Papua on October 12. Photo by Duma Sanda
Smoke emerges from a slope on the Wondama Bay in West Papua on October 12. Photo by Duma Sanda

Meanwhile the chairman of Indonesia’s elections commission said environmental issues could play a greater role in debates ahead of the archipelago’s local elections on December 9.

“I think it could be interesting because the momentum is there right now,” Husni Kamil Malik said.

The national director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), a prominent environmental pressure group, said the elections commission should look to provide data on a candidate’s relationship with companies involved in forestry or agriculture.

Haze in Palangkaraya, which has seen the worst air quality of this year’s disaster, closed schools again on Monday. The local pollutant standards index was in the “dangerous” range again on Monday morning, forcing the city’s mayor to announce all schools would be shut for three days, the sixth time authorities have been forced to shut schools in the Central Kalimantan capital.

Meteorologists in Singapore said Monday that haze in the city state should ease in the coming weeks as seasonal wind direction begins to shift. Schools in several Malaysian states will remain closed again on Tuesday as smog continued to blanket several parts of the country.

A burned forest in Wamena, a town in West Papua, is shown in August. Photo by Asrida Elisabeth
A burned forest in Wamena, a town in West Papua, is shown in August. Photo by Asrida Elisabeth
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