- Aerial images taken last month in the southern part of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island show fires raging through peatlands and generating massive clouds of haze.
- The fires this year are the worst since 2015, exacerbated by an unusually intense dry season and an El Niño weather pattern.
- The fires are set deliberately to clear land for oil palm and pulpwood plantations and the smoke they generate has sickened hundreds of thousands of people and spread as far as Singapore and Malaysia.
- India is one of the major exporters of palm oil from Indonesia.
Aerial images taken last month in the southern part of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island show wildfires burning through peat forests and producing clouds of toxic smoke.
The fires are deliberately set to clear land for oil palm and pulpwood plantations and get amplified depending on how dry the season is. Palm oil exports from Indonesia are fuelled by global demand. India is one of the major importers of palm oil from Indonesia.
The smoke generated in these forest fires that took place in October has sickened hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and spread as far as Singapore and Malaysia.
Experts earlier this year warned of an exacerbated fire risk as a result of an intense dry season and El Niño weather pattern. Observers expect this year’s fires to be the worst since 2015, when similar conditions led to the razing of more than 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of land, much of it peat forest. Burning has long been the cheapest and preferred method of clearing the land for planting, despite being illegal.
Peatlands in the districts of Ogan Komering Ilir and Ogan Ilir in South Sumatra province were among those pictured ablaze by Mongabay Indonesia’s Nopri Ismi, who joined a water-bombing flight by the local disaster management agency, or BPBD, on Oct. 24. The air quality index for both districts hit unhealthy levels that day, according to the data from the Indonesian environment ministry.
Read more: As India, EU may increase duties, Indonesia eyes China for palm oil.
In the wake of the 2015 fires, the Indonesian government rolled out a series of regulations and efforts to protect intact peat and rehabilitate burned lands, including the establishment of a Peat Restoration Agency (BRG). In South Sumatra province, the agency has carried out restoration programs in the districts of Ogan Komering Ilir, Banyuasin, Musi Banyuasin, Muara Enim, and Musi Rawas. But fires have still flared up on peatlands across the province this year.
Peatland razed for oil palm plantations
Nearly half of Cengal subdistrict in Ogan Komering Ilir district, spanning a little over 2,400 square kilometers (925 square miles), is peatland. Much of the peat area has been razed for oil palm and pulpwood plantations. On October 24, fires were spotted on parts of these peatlands.
There have been no government-led peat restoration efforts in Cengal, according to Mongabay Indonesia’s findings, despite it being an extensive peatland.
The peat swamp served as a site of a key port during the Sriwijaya Empire up until the 12th century, and in the wake of the 2015 fires people flocked here in search of historical objects that may have been unearthed by the flames.
Burning cheaper and preferred method of clearing land, despite being illegal
Much of Ogan Ilir, which covers 2,500 square kilometers (970 square miles), is peat swamp, and fires and haze are an almost annual phenomenon here. Yet the district isn’t included on the list of sites for peat rehabilitation by the Peat Restoration Agency.
Much of the peatlands across the district have been licensed out for oil palm plantations and other agriculture. The subdistricts of Inderalaya and Pemulutan have registered the highest number of fire hotspots this year.
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on Mongabay’s Indonesian site on October 27, 2019.