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Forest fires in Indonesia set to add toxic haze to COVID-19 woes

Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Forest fires have flared up in Indonesia, marking the start of the dry season and threatening to aggravate respiratory ailments amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Haze from forest fires sickens hundreds of Indonesians annually, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo; many of them now suffer chronic respiratory problems that puts them at high risk of suffering acutely from COVID-19.
  • Studies done in Italy have linked higher levels of air pollution to higher COVID-19 mortality rates, and experts in Indonesia fear that theory will play out in the country that already has the second-highest death rate from the pandemic in Asia.
  • Social distancing measures imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus are already hampering fire prevention programs, and could do the same for firefighting efforts once the dry season intensifies.

JAKARTA — Forest fires are starting to break out in parts of Indonesia as the dry season gets underway, threatening to compound respiratory illnesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fires have already appeared in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Both regions host large swaths of highly flammable and carbon-rich peatlands, which farmers typically burn at the start of the dry season to prepare for planting.

The haze generated by these fires sickens hundreds of thousands of people each year, and spreads as far as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The national weather agency is predicting a milder dry season this year compared to 2019, when the El Niño system fueled higher temperatures and more intense fires. But the public health burden from the haze this year will exacerbate respiratory complaints from the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia, which has the second-highest number of fatalities from the disease in Asia, after China.

“In Indonesia, air pollution in major cities comes from vehicles, but in places like South Sumatra and Riau, it’s land and forest fires,” said Budi Haryanto, a researcher on climate change and environmental health at the University of Indonesia. “So it’s true that [haze from forest fires] will exacerbate the risks.”

Indonesia has recorded 7,418 confirmed COVID-19 infections as of April 22, with 635 deaths, although experts believe the real numbers are likely much higher.

Budi cited studies done overseas that link air pollution to higher COVID-19 mortality rates, including one by researchers at Harvard University and another by researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University. The latter shows that in the industrialized north of Italy, where air pollution levels are higher, mortality rates from COVID-19 are as high as 12%, against a 4.5% average for the rest of the country. The Harvard study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, shows a small increase in long-term levels of PM2.5 — a fine particulate matter deemed harmful to human health and present in haze from forest fires — may increase COVID-19 death rates by 15%.

The annual burning season in Indonesia, which usually lasts several months, has left over a million people with a history of respiratory ailments, putting them at greater risk of suffering more acutely from COVID-19, Budi said.

“These people are used to being exposed to air pollution every year, and so it can be ensured that they have problems in the functions of their lungs as well as other diseases related to air pollution,” Budi said. “They are clearly at more risk than healthy people.”

Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Fire in a protected park

In Sumatra’s Riau province, usually one of the worst-affected regions during the dry season, fires have broken out in the areas of Pulau Rupat and Dumai, with firefighters still trying to extinguish them as of April 15.

Fires also appeared on April 12 at Way Kambas National Park in the southern Sumatran province of Lampung. The 130,000-hectare (321,200-acre) swamp and lowland forest is home to one of the last remaining populations of Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), one of the world’s rarest and most endangered mammal species. The park is among 56 conservation zones nationwide that have been closed to visitors indefinitely to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The fire inside the national park was recorded less than a mile from a restoration area under management by park authorities and the environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara. Auriga researcher Syahrul Fitra said the burning was likely started by hunters to clear the shrub and let cogongrass grow to attract wildlife.

Subakir, the head of Way Kambas National Park, said authorities were working with local police to tackle the poaching problem.

As of April 14, the environment ministry had detected 669 hotspots across the country, down from 1,087 hotspots during the same period in 2019. Already this year the fires have burned 8,253 hectares (20,394 acres) of land.

“Fires are still breaking out [in Way Kambas] and other regions like Riau as well,” Syahrul told Mongabay. “They’re still favorite locations for fires. There’s no progress yet.”

He said that with the dry season only just starting, the worst of the burning is yet to come.

“The progress [in reducing forest fires] has been supported by the current wetter weather,” Syahrul said. “But if [the weather] is like 2019, this year’s fires could be more intense.”

Once forest fires flare up in full force, he said, it’ll be more difficult to extinguish them because of mobility restrictions imposed as part of social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“When there are fires, actions [to extinguish them] are needed,” Syahrul said. “People need to go to the field and that takes many people. Meanwhile, during this pandemic, we can’t gather [in large groups]. And forest fires can’t be extinguished via Zoom,” he added, referring to the popular video-conferencing app.

Residents who usually participate in extinguishing fires might choose to stay home instead, Syahrul said.

The distancing measures have already impacted efforts to prevent forest fires by rehabilitating degraded peatlands, said Myrna A. Safitri, an official with the government’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG). She said that the pandemic had forced a halt to construction of some of the infrastructure to rewet drained peat areas.

Myrna said that despite this setback, the BRG will continue its work to prevent fires.

“We will check our existing infrastructure to see which ones need to be fixed and which ones need to be maintained,” she said. “We will also make sure the construction of infrastructure proceeds despite problems in some locations.”

She added the BRG will also continue to educate farmers to not carry out slash-and-burn land clearing, especially during this pandemic period.

“We’ll remind villagers that peat fires and COVID-19 have similarities: they both attack our respiratory system,” she said. “So at a time when we’re fighting COVID-19, please don’t exacerbate the situation by burning peatlands.”

Peat fire in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Enforcement against burning

Environmental activists have called on the government to compel companies to protect and rehabilitate the peatlands that lie within their concessions, and to revoke the permits of those companies who fail to do so.

Following the particularly disastrous fire season of 2015, the government rolled out a series of regulations aimed at freezing the development of peatlands, including those already part of existing concessions, and rezoning them for conservation to prevent future outbreaks of fire and haze. That protection initially covered land with peat layers deeper than 3 meters (10 feet), those containing high biodiversity, and peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges.

But in April 2019, the environment ministry issued a new regulation limiting the protection to just peat domes, leaving 3-meter and high-biodiversity peat areas once again open for exploitation.

“What’s clear is that with this regulation, companies won’t restore their peatlands, except for the peat domes [inside their concessions],” Syahrul said.

According to a 2019 report by a coalition of NGOs, nearly 50% of fire alerts in the worst-affected pulpwood concessions last year through October were located within peat areas whose protected status was scrapped under the new regulation.

“We’re worried that this regulation will endanger our peatlands,” Syahrul said. “We haven’t seen any the restoration work in the field, but we’ve found some [companies] starting to clear peatlands. And if there are fires [on these concessions], it’ll be extra concerning because there’s a COVID-19 pandemic going on.”

He said there needs to be a moratorium on all peat clearance, including those in non-protected areas. “The environment ministry could make sure that companies don’t clear peatlands even if the regulation allows them to do so,” Syahrul said.

The country’s largest green group, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), says the government should crack down on companies that fail to prevent fires on their concessions or are found to deliberately set the fires. Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati said such companies should have their permits revoked immediately and pay for damages.

“We can’t be business as usual in these extraordinary circumstances like the pandemic,” she said. “We need to give shock therapy to companies so that they don’t act carelessly anymore.”


Banner image: Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.


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