Indonesia is a tropical archipelago country, located exactly in the equator. As a tropical country, it only has two seasons which are wet season and dry season. However, looking on the past two decades, we know that this country has another season: fire season.
Fire season is a term used to describe a period of time when the country suffers from huge forest fire all around the archipelago. Usually, it happens when dry season is at its peak. The condition is so severe that neighboring countries also suffers from the effects, particularly the ‘exported smog’.
The smog itself is a threat to surrounding people’s respiration health. While this year, we already have a global respiration health terror called COVID-19. Our best chance to deal with those problem is by tackling them separately.
Should we imagine what will happen if those two problems finally meet? Can we do something to tackle both of them in the same time?
Pre-Existing Health Problem
Every country all around the world is fighting against COVID-19 nowadays due to the risks of this disease. One million people have died from this global pandemic, and we cannot let it continue to rule our world.
Indonesia is the most populated country in Southeast Asia, and for some reason it is also the country with highest victim count from COVID-19 in the region. Just as many other countries, Indonesia declared this pandemic as national health disaster.
Rusmadya Maharudin, Greenpeace Indonesia’s Forest Campaigner, said that the country should have been able to prevent this disaster. Or at least, Indonesia should have suffered less, had the country solved its forest fire problem.
“The fires which follow the destruction of our forests and peatlands for oil palm and pulpwood plantations cause needless death and suffering. We know that Covid-19 can be deadly for people with pre-existing health conditions but after years of breathing this smoke, it feels like we are going into the fight with one arm tied behind our back,” the environmental activist said.
There is a huge point in what Maharudin said. Indonesia’s (almost) annual forest fire has been linked closely to respiration health problems in Kalimantan and Sumatra, where most of it usually burns. The number of people suffering from acute respiratory infection soars every time the fire season comes.
PM2.5 And COVID-19
Talking about coronavirus, Jakarta is the most affected province in Indonesia. On the other hand, the province is also the most polluted one in the country, ranking 8th most polluted city on earth. Does it mean there are correlations between those facts?
A research done by Scientists at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health might prove so. Air pollution in big cities is usually produced by fossil fuel burning from vehicles and industries. Fossil fuel burning itself produce fine particulate matter, also called as PM2.5.
The study compared the amount of PM2.5 in one United States county with another, and later compare the death rate caused by coronavirus in those counties. The result found that a slight increase of fine particulate matter raises the risk of death caused by the virus significantly, about 20 times!
For your information, PM2.5 is also produced by smog of forest fire. Fine particulate matter is also the main cause for acute respiratory infection. Now, imagine combining sudden huge increase of PM2.5 and current coronavirus outbreak.
Even without its annual forest fire, Indonesia is already struggling to fight the virus. The best chance the country has is actually to prevent this year’s forest fire in any way, because if it finally happens it would be too much for Indonesia to handle.
Palm Oil And Pulpwood
The first suspect of Indonesia’s (almost) annual forest fire is palm oil industry. The multibillion industry is often linked to deforestation in Indonesia, just similar to how soya plantation is linked to deforestation in Brazil’s amazon area.
To grow oil palm monoculture, industry players need huge area of land. This thing alone can be directly linked to three environmental destruction potentials. The first is, since it is monoculture, the area will face loss of biodiversity.
Second, to clear such huge area usually the industry players just directly burn the forest down. Even though this is a traditional method used by indigenous people too, but the scale differs greatly. In many cases the fire goes out of control and therefore become Indonesia’s infamous forest fire.
And even though the fire is out, oil palm monoculture plantation still has potentials to cause fire. Oil palms doesn’t provide enough shade to the ground, unlike the rainforest it used to be, which means its whole plantation area becomes hotspot.
All of those effects are also carried by pulpwood industry players, our second suspect. Weirdly enough, not so many palm oil and pulpwood industry players are being linked to forest fire, let alone being punished by local laws.
International COVID-19 Threat
The thing is, Indonesia’s forest fire doesn’t only harm its citizen alone. Surrounding countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand are regular customers for what is called as ‘exported smog’ from the fire.
Those countries are also the ones suffer the most from COVID-19 outbreak. Thus, during this hard time, Indonesia’s (almost) annual forest fire is like a terror for them. No wonder those countries urge Indonesian government to bend over the back to prevent this year’s fire.
“Tens of thousands of Thai people have fallen sick because of the transboundary haze from Indonesia. While the scientific community is urging countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and protect peatland, Indonesia is going in the opposite direction,” said Greenpeace Thailand Country Director, Tara Buakamsri.
Currently, the efforts done by Indonesian government is still at preventing and mitigating fire in hotspot areas. This includes employing weather modification technology and thorough monitoring in discovered hotspots as several regions including Riau and Aceh have already entered dry season.
“Prevention and mitigation efforts on the field will still be conducted with authorities applying health protocols,” Indonesian ministry of environment director for forest and land fire control, Basar Manullang told Jakarta Post.
Let’s hope that the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, and this year’s forest fire can be mitigated as early as possible to minimize loss.