International Asia While world grappled with Covid-19, Indonesia lost over 200,000 hectares to forest...

While world grappled with Covid-19, Indonesia lost over 200,000 hectares to forest fires

A far lower number this year but plantation companies have continued to clear forests by burning them

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Singapore — Much of the world’s attention this year has been on the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused 55 million infections and more than 1.3 million deaths.

Less attention has been paid to forest fires in Indonesia, especially since, unlike in previous years, there was no significant haze problem. The fires, however, remain a major problem, as pointed out by a recent report from the Greenpeace environmental group.

This year’s numbers may not be as alarming as those of previous years, but the impact on people’s lives both today and in the future is still considerable.

In a commentary for channelnewsasia.com, Mr Kiki Taufik, the Global Head of Greenpeace South-east Asia’s forest campaign, wrote that in 2019, 1.6 million hectares were burned in forest fires. For this year, only 206,751 hectares have gone up in flames from January through September.

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A far lower number should give some measure of comfort, right? As it turns out, the answer is, wrong.

Plantation companies, including those with parent firms allegedly from Singapore and Malaysia, Mr Taufik writes, have continued to clear forests by burning them in order to plant oil palm and pulpwood, which is illegal, but still practised, in Indonesia.

“Palm oil and pulp multinationals have practically set the rules in recent decades. Year after year they have broken the law by allowing forests to go up in flames, yet they evade justice and go unpunished,” Al Jazeera quoted Mr Taufik as saying last month.

Much of the burning is taking place now in Papua, which houses 50 per cent of the country’s biodiversity. There have been 155 fire alerts in Papua in the last three months.

According to Mr Taufik, due to travel restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it has been more difficult than ever to monitor the fires used for illegal land clearing. This difficulty allowed companies to continue burning forests, in spite of a moratorium from the government.

And while, by Greenpeace’s estimates, toxic smoke inhalation kills around 11,000 people yearly in the region, the pandemic has made the situation even worse.

Mr Taufik writes: “Studies carried out by Harvard University in April 2020, and another covering all 355 municipalities of the Netherlands released in June 2020, found that a small increase in air pollution was linked to a measurable increase in Covid-19 death rates.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of the report from Greenpeace is how big the area Indonesia has lost to forest fires just from 2015 to 2019. It wrote that some 4.4 million hectares of forests have been burned in the five year period, which is roughly the size of the Netherlands.

Mr Taufik has also drawn attention to the “Omnibus Bill”, passed in Indonesia’s Parliament last month, which favors companies at the expense of the environment. He urged President Joko Widodo to veto the law.

“Measures like the pro-business ‘Omnibus Law’ that ignore people and see nature as a bottomless resource to be extracted for short-term profit, can only have a catastrophic outcome for human health, human rights and the climate,” he told Al Jazeera. /TISG

Read also: Climate change rally: why no protest against haze and forest fires of Indonesia?

Climate change rally: why no protest against haze and forest fires of Indonesia?

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