By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Forest fires across the globe are a matter of great concern as they are becoming more frequent, destroy more and last longer to be a major factor in climate change. The international community is aware of this and yet, it is unable to unite and collectively prevent the devastating incidents. Self-interest and respect for sovereignty of nations have been the stumbling blocks to collective action despite the existence of agreements to cooperate.
Forest fires are not peculiar to the Third World. Devastating fires have consumed thousands of hectares of forests in the developed world as well, including the United States and Canada. They occur in Russia, North Eastern China, the Mediterranean countries.
In Mongolia, fires have devoured nearly 13.6 million acres. In Africa, forest fires devastated Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indonesia caught the world’s attention when it became a major atmospheric polluter in South East Asia. Australia has had its share of fires too.
According to experts, the most frightening part is this: “Worldwide, fires are trending toward longer burning periods, heightened fire severity, greater area burned and increased (mostly human-caused) frequency. These factors contribute to more damaging environmental impacts, increasing socio-economic costs, including greater threats to human health and security.”
Release of Carbon Dioxide
According to one of the publications on the subject, “every year, global vegetation fire emissions typically constitute one-third of total releases of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping emission contributing to climate change. Fires burning in Indonesia alone, during the El Niño dry season in I997 and 1998, produced an equivalent of up to 40% of the global gross carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for that year.”
As per the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) the Indonesian crisis of 2015 produced daily carbon dioxide amounts higher than the entire U.S. industrial economy.
Experts point out that these carbon Dioxide emissions do more than just contribute to climate change, they are literally killing people. “The annual average number of premature deaths resulting from vegetation fire smoke exposure, range between 180,000 and 339,000. During previous severe El Niño years like this one, that global average spiked to some 530,000 deaths,” one report says.
Brazil As Polluter
Brazil’s forest fires have become a matter of grave international concern. The South American nation, recorded more than 72,000 fires in 2019, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018.
But what is more worrying is that the government of President Jair Bolsonaro appears to be promoting forest fires through its economic policies. In August 2019, The Guardian, quoted one of Brazil’s most respected scientists, Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, as saying that “a very large number of these fires are due to the push that ministers are giving. They are pushing deforestation because it is good for the economy. Those who do illegal deforestation are feeling empowered.”
Nobre predicts that the Amazon forest would reach an “irreversible stage of degradation once 20%-25% of the forest was cleared.”
All this is causing international concern. “Our house is burning,” tweeted the French president, Emmanuel Macron as he called for emergency talks on the subject at a G7 summit.
Macron’s call notwithstanding, there is no significant international response, The Guardian noted. “While Norway and Germany have halted donations to the Brazilian government’s Amazon fund, the EU has recently signed a trade deal with South America, and the UK spent this week focusing on post-Brexit business with Brazil,” the paper said.
Encouraged by the lack of unity in the international community, President Jair Bolsonaro has brazenly dubbed anti-forest fire agitations as an international leftist NGOs’ conspiracy to overthrow him. He has even said that the satellite images of fires were doctored. He decided to resume mega-hydro projects in the Amazon that were halted on environmental grounds.
However, Carlos Nobre thinks that only international intervention will help. “Politicians in Brazil pay more attention to international pressure than the voice of Brazilians,” he said. The agriculture sector in Brazil is very concerned that European consumers won’t buy Brazil produce, it is pointed out.
Indonesia is one of the leading producers of haze in the world, points out Kazzandra Alyzza Galleta, a research scholar at the Far Eastern University in the Philippines. The widespread destruction of trees and peatlands in Indonesia has made the country the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, she points out in her paper.
Indonesian forest fires have been going on for decades, partly due to myopic local governments and partly due to international indifference. Deforestation happens in Indonesia for many reasons. But the main reason is “Slash and Burn” cultivation which is encouraged by the State for its economic benefits. In 1999, Indonesia decentralized its administration which made it easier for local farmers to get permission to burn forests for cultivation.
The result was devastating, Galleta notes. In the province of Riau, 27,683,47 hectares had been burnt. 27,273,97 hectares were burnt in West Kalimantán; 236,49 hectares in South Sumatra; 52,53 hectares in South Kalimantan; and 27,618 hectares of Central Kalimantan and 4,18 hectares of Jambi.
In 2019, the director of the Forestry and Environment Ministry confirmed that a total of 2.12 million acres had been burnt by the end of September 2019, which was more than what was burnt in the previous year, 2018, (529,267 hectares).
In 2016, the “killer haze” may have caused over 100,000 premature deaths, Galleta says. Coughing, if left untreated, could escalate into a more dangerous situation, risking the respiratory health of several people across the region. Chronic respiratory problems are just one of the health problems afflicting up to 70 million people in Indonesia’s neighborhood, Galleta says. It is also reported that many suffer from skin and eye ailments as a result of the haze.
Haze created by forest fires cross borders and cause international tension. In 1997 and 1998, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and even the Philippines had issues with Indonesia because of this. The spreading haze had an adverse effect on tourism, aviation, and ground transportation, Galleta recalls.
Tension has grown high between Borneo and Indonesia because of the dire situation. In June 2013, Singapore experienced a particularly dangerous haze with the Pollutant Standard Index reaching 371, This was officially considered “hazardous”. A similar incident occurred again in 2015, forcing Singapore to close all schools for three full days just to avoid any health hazards.
But neither Indonesia nor the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it is part, is trying to control the fires and the haze, the Filipino scholar says.
“The principle of non-interference, which is a core value of ASEAN, hinders the ability of the organization to prevent forest fires in Indonesia,” scholar Galleta says in her paper.
The ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution was signed way back in 2002. The agreement states that ASEAN members would do their part in reducing the haze pollution occurring in Southeast Asia. It called for international collaboration to end such atmospheric pollution. The agreement was ratified by Indonesia. In addition, Indonesia has national laws such as the Planting Law of 2014 and the Environmental Protection & Management Law of 2009 which accord with ASEAN’s zero-burning strategy.
However, none of the Indonesian laws make any particular reference to the pollution caused by haze resulting from traditional slash-and-burn activities, Galleta points out. Equally importantly, Indonesia does not consider haze as a “disaster” because it is “man-made”. Therefore, what Indonesia currently has is only an emergency response team that can only be used when the haze is really bad.
ASEAN’s “no interference rule” stands in the way of the organization’s ability to put pressure on Indonesia to control slash and burn cultivation and thereby prevent forest fires and the haze. Galleta notes that the ASEAN countries help control fires but do not address the causes of the fire – the root of the problem.