Indonesia forest fires surge, stoking global warming fears


Officials of regional disaster management agency try to douse a peat land forest fire, in Pekanbaru, in Riau province, on July 31, 2019. - AFP pic

PEKANBARU (AFP): The number of blazes in Indonesia's rainforests has jumped sharply, satellite data showed Thursday (Sept 12), spreading smog across South-East Asia and adding to concerns about the impact of increasing wildfire outbreaks worldwide on global warming.

Illegal blazes to clear land for agricultural plantations have been raging on Sumatra and Borneo islands, with Indonesia deploying water-bombing helicopters and thousands of security forces to tackle them.

It is just the latest such outbreak worldwide - huge blazes have torn through the Amazon in South America while bushfires are sweeping across eastern Australia in an unusually ferocious and early start to the wildfire season.

Indonesia's forest fires are an annual problem but have been worsened this year by particularly dry weather, and in recent days sent toxic smog floating over Malaysia and triggered a diplomatic row.

The number of "hotspots" - areas of intense heat detected by satellite which indicate a high chance of fire - jumped sharply in Indonesia on Wednesday (Sept 11), according to the Singapore-based Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre.

There were 1,619 hotspots detected on the Indonesian part of Borneo and Sumatra up from 861 a day earlier, according to a tally from the centre, which monitors forest fires and smog outbreaks.

Kiki Taufik, a forests campaigner with Greenpeace in Indonesia, told AFP there has been little rain in the past fortnight, particularly on Indonesian Borneo which saw the sharpest increase in hotspots.

Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

- Burning issue -

Taufik saw similarities between the blazes in Indonesia and those in the Amazon, where farmers also start fires to clear land for agriculture.

"This should remind people we are facing a climate crisis," he said of the recent fires around the world. "Industries are looking to expand plantations using fires."

And he warned Indonesia's fires would add to the sprawling archipelago's climate-damaging emissions, already among the highest in the world.

In 2015, Indonesia suffered its worst forest fires for almost two decades, which dramatically increased its greenhouse gas emissions.

Diplomatic tensions were also rising as Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin accused her Indonesian counterpart of being "in denial", after Jakarta insisted fires in Malaysia had caused the smog there.

"Let the data speak for itself," she said in a Facebook post, indicating figures from the Asean centre which showed only a handful of hotspots in Malaysia compared to the hundreds in Indonesia.

Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar hit back Wednesday, telling AFP that "hotspots are not only found in Indonesia, but also in Sarawak (on Malaysian Borneo) and Peninsular Malaysia".

"We are not standing idly by," she added.

Indonesian security forces have been struggling to tame the blazes as many burn underground in carbon-rich peat, which has been cleared across vast areas of Indonesia for plantations.

After being cleared and drained of water, peat is highly combustible and hard to extinguish once ablaze.

There have been some outbreaks of fire in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Drone footage taken by AFP in the area showed smoke rising from charcoal grey patches of smouldering earth, surrounded by pristine forest. - AFP

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