Crops fail as huge blazes send pall into Indonesian sky

Police tape marks off an area where a forest fire is under investigation in central Sumatra. Picture: PA
Police tape marks off an area where a forest fire is under investigation in central Sumatra. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Vast forest fires in Indonesia have spawned an ecological disaster which have left 21 people dead, crops destroyed and a huge area of land scorched.

For farmer Achmad Rusli, it was a season of smoke: ten weeks without sunlight for his oranges, guavas and durians, thanks to deliberately set forest fires that burned a chunk of Indonesia the size of New Jersey.

The fires have finally died down with the arrival of monsoon rains, but too late for his crops, which are far too measly to sell. “We had not seen the sun in a two-and-a-half months,” said Rusli, 34, from Riau province, in eastern Sumatra, among the six hardest-hit provinces. “How can we harvest the fruit?”

The ecological disaster has inflicted a staggering toll on the region’s environment, economy and human health: 2.1 million hectares (8,063 square miles) of forests and other land burned, 21 deaths, more than half a million people ill with respiratory problems and $9 billion in economic losses, from damaged crops to hundreds of cancelled flights.

Palm oil and paper pulp companies illegally set fire to forests to clear land to plant more trees in the cheapest and fastest way possible.

Authorities are investigating more than 300 plantation companies and 83 suspects have been arrested, according to national police chief General Badrodin Haiti. The licences of three plantation companies have been revoked and those of 11 others have been suspended.

The fires have been an annual problem since the mid-1990s, but this was the worst year since 1997, when blazes spread across nearly 10 million hectares.

Greed is the cause. Herry Purnomo, a scientist at Centre for International Forestry Research, said it costs just $7 to clear a hectare of land by burning, compared to $150 to do so with tractors. Indonesian law bans clearing land by burning, except by small-scale farmers who are allowed up to 2 hectares.

All told, nearly 50,000 fires were detected since July, according to satellite data, with most on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. An absence of rain from the El Nino effect made them worse.

The thick haze forced schools to close in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, and for the first time it reached communities in southern Thailand.