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Breath Deep the Gathering Gloom


There have only been a hint of the rains needed to quell the fires that have devastated Indonesian Sumatra and Borneo, but maybe it’s not too premature to start considering the aftermath, what comes in the wake of such a nightmare, even how to seriously stop this from ever happening again.

I’m certainly not the only one considering the post-apocalypse, in fact far brighter souls are giving it serious thought. Louis Verchot is Director of Forests and Environment Research at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has said, “These peatlands will need to be restored and we are not sure how to do that at the moment. We believe we can accomplish a lot by blocking the drainage canals so these lands can be flooded again. But we do not know just how much ecological or hydrological recovery is possible.”

Regional environmental expert Erik Meijaard has also weighed in with criticism and consultancy in his JakartaGlobe piece, Pragmatism Not Idealism Needed to Address Haze. His highlights: the Indonesia government for not only refusing to acknowledge the problematic nature of the annual fire debacle, but also blatantly ignoring the focus of real blame – small-holder farmers. Meijaard points out that research clearly confirms most fires occur outside large-scale plantations. However, the big players in the palm oil controversy do hold enormous sway over both smaller operations (many from which they by Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB), and/or CPO (Crude Palm Oil), and their plantation neighbors. Applied pressure could alter the fire impact.

A further option (my suggestion, not Meijaard’s) would be for the larger plantation operators, especially the Big 5, to step in with mechanical land clearing tools subsidizing the effort. Most fires are started for purely financial reasons — it costs pennies on the dollar to torch the land versus using heavy machinery. The Big 5 have made billions off of Indonesian palm oil, and will continue to make huge sums, raping the land of its rainforests and destroying countless hectares of peatlands, at some stage they have to pay for past sins.

haze fires Kalimantan Borneo

Breath Deep the Gathering Gloom – that was the case 24 hours a day as a sepia haze of toxic pollution enveloped much of Central Kalimantan – including here rainforest in Tanjung Puting NP.

The oft heard fallback comment on the fires is it is ‘traditional’ in slash-and-burn agriculture. True BUT nothing about oil palms is traditional to Indonesia (or Malaysia.) Elaeis guineensis, the oil palm, as its name suggests is from Equatorial Africa. It is essentially and newcomer to Indo-Malaysia. A transmigrant that with the help of the Big 5 has spread like a virus across the lowland rainforest landscape. And as Meijaard points out, “there is all no traditional agriculture on peat… No one in their right mind would think of trying to grow crops on peat.” (Although as I have seen recently, transmigrants in West Kalimantan are trying, with poor success, rice, banana, and pineapple.)

I wasn’t around for previous incarnations of this inferno game. It has however, occurred before; actually it flames up every dry season, July through August, but some years, especially El Niño twin-years, have seen the annual slash-and-burn land clearing strategy rage out of control: some years have been “catastrophically bad fire episodes”, 1982-83, 1988-89, 1997-98, and most recently 2004. Generally the collective response is the rains will put the fires out. Trying to do anything more is a “complex issue.”

“It’s a complex issue” is heard repeatedly when confronting the issue of halting the slash-and-burn tradition, as if it were a mantra not requiring thought. “It’s a complex issue” has always been a rhetorical fallback position especially when government and corporations don’t sincerely want to tackle an issue. The bottom line is Indonesia has an even longer tradition of corruption, especially on the local level in the frontier states of Kalimantan Borneo. The complex issue boils down to a stronger judiciary enforcing laws that are already on the books. A less complex solution is to simply levy huge fines and enforce jail time for land owners who violate the law—forget the perpetrators, penalize landowners sitting isolated in comfort in Jakarta or Singapore. Don’t frustrate over finding guilty fire-starters, ascribe the blame and penalty to those holding land deeds. Fines are punitive, the cost of doing business. Rich people have an aversion to jail time. My suggestion isn’t revolutionary. It’s muttered in every smoky Restro in Kalimantan.

Breath Deep the Gathering Gloom

One thing we know is there will be follow up cases of respiratory infection, possibly deaths, but humans won’t be the sole victims. Breathing comes with being a terrestrial creature, humans aren’t the only animals relying on the air now polluted with a witch’s brew of toxic gases. It’s certain that another great ape, the orang-utans, are suffering deaths and the numbers will increase. They will likely be silent deaths, in the forest unseen, unrecorded in the final obituary of the 2015 fires. After having witnessed an orangutan rescue during the fires, seen the energy exertion and heavy breathing of the trapped male orangutan, as he swung through the remaining treetops, in a landscape enveloped in noxious smoke, I can’t imagine his lungs remaining unscathed.

The really frightening news is 2015 may be just the start of the typical two-year cycle. Little El Niño is often a twin, fostering a back-to-back event. This may eventually be known as the catastrophe of 2015-16. The ultimate question is will there be anybody left to tell you. More than one person I have spoken with has expressed serious doubt about mentally surviving another gagging season of toxic gas. Without doubt all the orang-utan rescuers I met are suffering a smoky PTS.  “It’s traumatic, it leaves you traumatized not seeing the sun, wearing a mask everyday, fearing the fire.“ said a weary Karmele Llano Sanchez, Director Yayasan IAR orang-utan rescue and rehab center.

As Meijaard has written, “Burning is not a fundamental human right… access to clean air [is].”

Footnote: One strange side effect of the smoke was not seeing mosquitoes and not hearing roosters crowing; two constants of previous Borneo visits.


Note & Sources

Personal notes and interviews


2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo



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