GP Insights

GP Insights # 147, 14 September 2019

An Amazon in the East: The Forest Fires in Indonesia
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?

Indonesia is witnessing massive forest fires across Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, destroying sprawling rainforest and increasing the greenhouse gas emissions. Wildfires in the Southeast Asian island country is an annual affair. However, the intensity this year has increased manifold. 

Satellites identify 1619 “hotspots” (the areas with intense heat) on the Indonesian Borneo, where the probability of fires increased rapidly. It is observed that illegal burning to clear land for agriculture is one of the prime reasons for the disaster. The forest fires have set the alarm bells ringing across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. 

What is the background?

The average temperature in July 2019 was higher than the average in the previous century, thereby pushing it to be the hottest July in the last 140 years. Climate scientists opine that warmer global temperatures though not directly the cause of wildfires, help it aggregate and spread much faster than anticipation. 

In recent times, wildfires are raging across the globe, right from the Arctic, to Amazon, to Southeast Asia to Australia. Human evacuation due to these fires has increased in these areas. The Spanish government is overseeing the evacuation of more than 9000 people from the Canary Islands on the one hand, while the Danish authorities have rushed firefighters to control flames in Greenland on the other. Parts of Alaska are also under fire, with the Swan Lake on the Kenai Peninsula being the most affected area. 

What does it mean?

Forest fire in Indonesia has impacted the environment and also created a diplomatic row with Singapore and Malaysia. The smoke has spread to these two neighbouring, causing smog and health issues. Besides closing around 400 schools, Malaysia is also distributing face masks to survive thick smog. There was a war of words between the environment ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur accused Jakarta of inaction, while the latter defended that all efforts were being taken to control the rage and that fires and hotspots were seen not only in Indonesia but also in Malaysia. 

The blame game on climate is not new. Besides the diplomatic row, it is a matter of concern that these fires were man-made, primarily a result of the practice of slashing and burning technique employed by farmers. The same practice has led to massive wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon. A bottom-up approach rather than a top-down can help resolve such human-induced accidents. 

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