Inferno in Indonesia

Indonesian forests are burning. It happens annually, but this time the inferno is far worse. On some days, the fires evolve more carbon into the atmosphere than the whole of America (whose economy is 20 times larger), and the smog and haze have spread beyond neighboring countries to Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as George Monbiot the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper points out, this catastrophe gets scant attention in the media, and is a long way below pronouncements by Donald Trump and European debates about standards for sausages.

As peat dries out in forest swamps drained in the Suharto era, it catches alight easily and smolders underground, even for years. That incendiary program, combined with clear-felling for logging, slash and burn farming, and palm oil plantations, is sending to extinction some of the richest habitats in the world where orangutans, gibbons, sun bears, pangolins, and other endangered species dwell.

When Alfred Russell Wallace visited in what was then Dutch New Guinea in 1862, he thought the astounding biodiversity was safe forever: Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these her choicest treasures may not lose value by being too easily obtained in the roughest terrain (The Malay Archipelago). A century later I remember hearing in our geography class that the jungles of Indonesia and Brazil are so tenacious that we can never degrade them. Those pages in my school notebook should be tossed in the fire.

The fires are especially aggressive this year because of the El Niño effect. As Pacific currents change periodically there is a see-saw impact on rainfall—less in normally humid Southeast Asia and more for parched California this winter.

The last strong El Niño in 1997 helped farmers in California to produce bumper crops. I was visiting Indonesia. From my seat in a Garuda flight from Java to Irian Jaya, I wrote in my journal before landing at Sentani:

When I woke at dawn we were flying through canyons of pink and grey clouds, and I will never forget the first thrilling sight of the coastline. This was a land from which travelers brought home tall tales of head-hunters, gigantic crocodiles and belligerent cassowaries. I pressed my forehead to the window to scan the terrain. The mountain summits were hidden under white bouffant hairdos from which long green saris of tropical forest trailed to the lowlands. As we descended, I could see brown rivers tumbling down steep gradients and over waterfalls before transforming into snakes weaving through coastal swamps to die in the Pacific Ocean. The largest was the Mamberamo River basin, which drains one of the last unexplored tracts of rainforest on earth, where new species of birds-of-paradise, frogs, butterflies and palms have been discovered…

The whole archipelago of Indonesia looked like a jewel from the air, and I anticipated a paradise on earth. The coastal plain was still lush, but when I reached the Highlands they were dry, the staple crop of sweet potato had failed, and people were dying of famine. Observing an ancient superstition in times of drought, they had lighted smoky fires to make clouds for bringing rain.

But they never sparked any great conflagration because they understood their environment, and the print of their bare feet on the earth had always been light.  It took the years of commercial and often illegal forest clearing to create conditions for infernos in Irian (now called West Papua), as in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra.

Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia
Papuan friends in the Highlands. Hungry but not scorched in 1997

A change from authoritarian to democratic rule in the past two decades hasn’t stopped the burning or the burners, and responsible stewardship of a wonderful archipelago seems beyond the reach of a feeble government and the new president, who graduated in forestry science. A better prospect for rooting out corruption and prodding a cataleptic government is coming from outside, through boycotts of products from Indonesian forestland brought by neighboring countries, and hopefully India and China will add their influence. Iya nih!

Next Post: Human chimera

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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