Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Indonesia forest fires surge, stoking global warming fears

There were 1,619 hotspots detected on the Indonesian part of Borneo and Sumatra, up from 861 a day earlier

A firefighter extinguishes a fire in a forest at Rambutan village, in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra province, on September 11 , 2019. AFP
A firefighter extinguishes a fire in a forest at Rambutan village, in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra province, on September 11 , 2019. AFP

The number of blazes in Indonesia's rainforests has jumped sharply, satellite data showed Thursday, spreading smog across Southeast Asia and adding to concerns about the impact of increasing wildfire outbreaks worldwide on global warming.

Illegal blazes to clear land for agricultural plantations have been raging on Sumatra and Borneo islands, with Indonesia deploying water-bombing helicopters and thousands of security forces to tackle them.

It is just the latest such outbreak worldwide – huge blazes have torn through the Amazon in South America while bushfires are sweeping across eastern Australia in an unusually ferocious and early start to the wildfire season.

Indonesia's forest fires are an annual problem but have been worsened this year by particularly dry weather, and in recent days sent toxic smog floating over Malaysia and triggered a diplomatic row.

The number of "hotspots" – areas of intense heat detected by satellite which indicate a high chance of fire – jumped sharply in Indonesia on Wednesday, according to the Singapore-based ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre.

There were 1,619 hotspots detected on the Indonesian part of Borneo and Sumatra up from 861 a day earlier, according to a tally from the centre, which monitors forest fires and smog outbreaks.

Kiki Taufik, a forests campaigner with Greenpeace in Indonesia, said there has been little rain in the past fortnight, particularly on Indonesian Borneo which saw the sharpest increase in hotspots.

Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Mr Taufik saw similarities between the blazes in Indonesia and those in the Amazon, where farmers also start fires to clear land for agriculture.

"This should remind people we are facing a climate crisis," he said of the recent fires around the world.

"Industries are looking to expand plantations using fires."

And he warned Indonesia's fires would add to the sprawling archipelago's climate-damaging emissions, already among the highest in the world.

In 2015 Indonesia suffered its worst forest fires for almost two decades, which dramatically increased its greenhouse gas emissions.

Diplomatic tensions were also rising as Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin accused her Indonesian counterpart of being "in denial", after Jakarta insisted fires in Malaysia had caused the smog there.

"Let the data speak for itself," she said in a Facebook post, indicating figures from the ASEAN centre which showed only a handful of hotspots in Malaysia compared to the hundreds in Indonesia.

Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar hit back Wednesday, saying that "hotspots are not only found in Indonesia, but also in Sarawak (on Malaysian Borneo) and peninsular Malaysia".

"We are not standing idly by," she added.

On Wednesday, authorities shut most schools in parts of Indonesia's Sumatra island to protect children from a thick, noxious haze as deliberately set fires burned through peatland forests.

Nearly every year, Indonesian forest fires spread health-damaging haze across the country and into neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

The fires are often started by smallholders and plantation owners to clear land for planting. Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning because of the draining of swampy peatland forests for pulp wood and palm oil plantations.

Updated: September 17, 2019 05:46 PM

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