Indonesia Is Still Burning

Consumer demand for palm oil is driving destruction of woodlands and wildlife, but stopping deadly forest fires means conserving the country’s unique peatlands.

Wildfire spreads in Riau province, Sumatra, in August 2014. (Photo: Michael Kodas)

By: Michael Kodas

KENYALA, Indonesia — The orange-furred toddler survived one of the most destructive wildfires on record, but with a plastic tube leashing her neck to the porch of a small hut, she hardly appears to have found salvation. A villager, Kasuan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, found the orangutan cowering from wild dogs last fall, perched in one of the surviving oil palm trees in a scorched plantation near the burned forest that had been her home. The rest of her family, Kasuan tells me, perished in the epic forest fires that overtook Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, as woodlands were burned to make room for plantations that harvest palm oil, a $50 billion business. Theubiquitous ingredient is used in half of the packaged food and cosmetic products found on supermarket shelves, from Oreo cookies to Colgate toothpaste. At least nine of the highly endangered primates died during last year’s conflagrations. Three weeks before I arrive in March, three more orangutans, all of them female and one of them a baby, burned to death when the annual fires ignited months early.

“If we didn’t rescue the orangutan from the haze and the fires, it would die like the others,” Erni, Kasuan’s wife, says. When the ape, which they named Sumbing, wasn’t tied to the post, Erni carried her like one of her own children. “I hope I can look after it and keep it healthy.”

But the couple has no idea how to care for her when she grows into an adult weighing well over 100 pounds, if the animal survives that long. Compared with wild orangutans I’ve photographed, Sumbing’s hair and limbs look thin, and she seems frightened and depressed. She snaps at me when I first arrive but calms down when I pat her, and eventually she takes my hand for a moment. “I hope there are some authorities that will come to take care of the orangutan,” Kasuan says, contradicting his wife’s hopes, “because we can’t feed it what it needs.”

The orangutan population has fallen 50 percent over the past 60 years to around 50,000 individuals, and 55 percent of its habitat has been lost to palm oil plantations, logging, and other development since the 1990s. Rescue workers from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation plan to visit the village to take the would-be pet to one of their sanctuaries for rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. But they had better arrive soon. Another baby orangutan held by villagers here was reportedly sold to a manager at a nearby palm oil plantation, likely for resale into the illegal pet trade. The foundation is rapidly running out of forests in which to release rehabilitated orangutans. Nonetheless, at least one villager thinks the orangutan is better off than the humans here.

“If I could change into an orangutan, I would,” says the villager, who is named Langkai TN. He pointed out how much attention the international press gives the redheaded primates while ignoring thesuffering of indigenous communities such as his. He endured months of smoke, lost farm fields to the fires, and was sent to jail for six months when he marked the boundaries of his land to keep rapidly expanding palm oil plantations from taking his property. “If I was an orangutan, maybe you would carry me out of here,” Langkai TN says.

Orangutans orphaned or displaced by logging and fires are rehabilitated by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. (Photo: Paulina L. Ela/ BOSF)

Last fall, most of the human and animal residents of Borneo were trying to escape the smoke and flames overtaking the third-largest island in the world. For more than 20 years, Indonesia’s annual burning season has devastated human health, endangered animals, and accelerated climate change. The fires are even worse when El Niño brings drought to the nation, and last year’s record El Niño drove infernos with near biblical intensity.

The conflagrations, according to conservationists, threaten one-third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans, as well as the nation’s highly endangered clouded leopards, sun bears, Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and elephants. But the impacts of the fires spread far beyond the burning forests and peatlands.

Last year Indonesian smoke, an annual blight on the region known as “the haze,” forced more than half a million people as far away as Thailand to seek treatment for severe respiratory problems. Indonesia dispatched warships to evacuate villagers who were trapped for months in the toxic orange fog but not before at least 19 people, most of them children, choked to death. The World Bank estimates last year’s firescost Indonesia at least $16 billion, more than twice the price tag of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the country’s Aceh province. On 40 days last fall, wildfires in Indonesia released more greenhouse gas than the entire United States economy.

Environmental activists in the West tend to focus on saving Indonesia’s forests and wildlife by pressuring multinational corporations to buy sustainably produced palm oil. The reality on the ground, though, is more complex and offers a lesson for those fighting for forests around the world. Corruption, a dysfunctional legal system, and the role of thousands of small farmers in the burning all fan the flames of the fires set by palm oil producers. Increasingly, Indonesians are taking matters into their own hands to fight the fires at their source, the carbon-rich peatlands that underlie Borneo’s and Sumatra’s forests and that can spontaneously ignite an inferno. And the key to fighting palm oil deforestation maybe something as simple as a map.

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