Some of the most devastating fires the world has ever seen are happening right now in Indonesia, and this unfolding disaster is getting little attention. Annual fires during the dry season have become typical in the last 20 years or so as slash and burn rain-forest farming techniques have ravaged this once pristine part of the world, but now this year they are catastrophic. Some 5000 fires have burned in Borneo alone in just the last 2 months.
“A great tract of Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 meters. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.” – George Monbiot
This year’s fires are shaping up to be some of the worst fires on record, as a stretch of some 5000 km of land is burning, casting a deadly cloud of particulate haze over millions of people. These types of fires are unique because it is not just the trees and vegetation that burn, as most of the fires are occurring in the vast tropical peatlands of the rain-forest.
Here, the land itself actually catches fire, not just trees and vegetation, because great swaths of the forest sit on enormous eat domes that act as fuel under such dry conditions that have been exacerbated this year by the El Nino weather phenomenon. When the layers of peat are penetrated by fire, then they can smolder for weeks or even months continually releasing toxic gasses which extend for hundreds of miles.
“Peat is formed under very wet conditions, when dead plant material is unable to decay in the flooded environment. This leads to a build-up of partially decomposed organic matter, which over time accumulates in peat domes, like the Sabangau Forest… Here, the peat is around 26,000 years old and measures more than 12 meters deep in the center. ” [Source]
Why are the fires so intense this year as compared to previous years? Journalist George Monbiot, author of Poisoned Arrows, writes, for the Guardian:
Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil.The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe. –George Monbiot
The burning of land by both corporations and by small land holders has become a serious social and political issue, but the greatest damage may be inflicted upon wildlife and other invaluable treasures.
“The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. 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.” -George Monbiot
Tragically, the fires are devastating Indonesian Borneo and places like Gunung Palung National Park, home to some of the largest populations of orangutans on the planet. Several organizations are working tirelessly to evacuate trapped animals, but the toll on wildlife in Indonesia is already staggering. Some estimate that as many as 20,000 orangutans may be wiped out.
“The situation is dire and deteriorating by the day.” – Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project
Orangutans in the haze shrouding the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation camp on Oct. 5.
Here is a short clip of aerial drone footage showing some of the burn areas of the forest in the last couple of months. The burned areas surrounding villages extend for miles and the loss in some areas is staggering, total. Footage is courtesy of GreenPeace International.
Some are already calling this the greatest ecological catastrophe of the 21 st century so far, and some are even calling it a crime against humanity, as the fires have stoked political flames as well between regional governments. Yet this disaster is receiving very little coverage in the mainstream media, which is, as always, distracting us by featuring ridiculous news about scandals, celebrities and political candidates.
Sadly, this is what the future looks like with virtually unchecked deforestation.
Finally, here is footage from Borneo in support of the efforts OUTROP, the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project who is working to stop the fires and protect people and wildlife. Please support their effort here.