Heaven Under Threat

Forest burning not only causes loss of shelter and deteriorating health at the local level, but also a bigger problem for humanity, climate change.
Photo & Text :
Anton Muhajir & Ulet Ifansasti
Thursday, 30 September 2021

September 2019. Huge fires engulfed forests in the interior of Central Kalimantan. The fire devoured various plants in one of the world’s lungs. In fact, it also burned people’s houses. From January to September 2019, fires had occurred in 22,720 spots with an area of 7,944 hectares. At that time there were 1,838 fire incidents throughout Central Kalimantan Province.

As a result of the fires, residents had to evacuate. Derma, 61, was one of the residents who had to lose his home. His house was burned down along with thousands of hectares of peatlands and forests in South Kalimantan. His struggle to extinguish the raging fire to save his house seemed meaningless.

The forest and peatland fires sent another problem to the residents. They have to struggle to breathe against the thick air caused by the smoke of forest fires. According to Mongabay Indonesia’s report, citing data from the AQM Station of Jekan Raya District Office, Palangka Raya, in mid-September 2019, the air quality was very poor. The PM10 pollution parameter reached 3,193 µg/m3. In fact, the quality standard is only 150 µg/m3. Likewise, the PM2.5 parameter, another indicator to measure air quality, which reached 3,479 µg/m3, from the maximum standard of 65 µg/m3.

Apart from Kalimantan, another island that often experiences fires is Sumatra, including in Jambi Province. In June 2013, forest and peatland fires also occurred in almost all districts in the province. As a result, residents experienced various problems including air pollution. They have to wear masks when doing outdoor activities, such as residents in Rokan Hulu Regency, Riau. The smoke from the fires even spread to two neighboring countries, Malaysia and Singapore.

Aerial photo showing dryland primary forest in Lorentz National Park, Mimika Regency, Papua (18/12/17).
Peatland and forest fires in Central Kalimantan (14/9/19).
Peatland and forest fires in Central Kalimantan (14/9/19).

Debt and peatland fires are just one of the many causes of deforestation in Indonesia

Forest and peatland fires are only one of the many causes of deforestation in Indonesia. Research by Kemen G Agustin and his team in 2018 showed that in a period of 15 years (2001-2016) forest and peatland fires were the main cause of deforestation for the purposes of oil palm and industrial forest development, reaching up to 40%. Nationally, according to Margono’s research (2014), deforestation is most prevalent in Sumatra (47%) and Kalimantan (40%).

However, forest burning not only causes loss of shelter and deteriorating health at the local level, but also a bigger problem for humanity, climate change. Ironically, the burning of forests and peatlands is strongly suspected to be the first step in clearing oil palm plantations.

Recent research by Greenpeace and The Tree Map published in October 2021 shows that by the end of 2019, there were 3.12 million hectares of oil palm planted within Indonesia’s tropical forests. More than half, 1.55 million hectares to be precise, were plantations controlled by plantations, not owned by individual farmers and the rest were independent plantations.

It is well known that when tropical forests are converted to oil palm plantations, the forests lose their ability to absorb carbon in an effort to cool the Earth’s warming temperatures. Undisturbed tropical forests or primary forests contain high amounts of carbon, both above ground and in the soil itself. When these tropical forests are cut down or burned, the carbon is lost.

On the other hand, the ability of oil palm plantations to store carbon is very low. According to the same report, citing Guillaume’s research in Jambi, Sumatra, conversion from rainforest to oil palm plantations resulted in a net loss of 173.5 metric tons of carbon per hectare (173.5 Mg C/ha). In other places, however, conversion to oil palm plantations would result in much greater emissions. For example, on high-carbon peat soils (even in logged peat forests).

Oil palm plantation development in South Papua (31/3/18).
Peatland deforested by a timber-for-paper plantation on Padang Island, Bengkalis Regency, Riau (20/5/14).
Aerial view of oil palm plantations in South Papua (29/3/18). Indonesia's forests are currently experiencing massive deforestation, allegedly due to land clearing for industrial plantations.

In addition to deforestation for oil palm plantations, deforestation also occurs due to other human activities. The findings of Kemen G Agustin and his team show that the second largest cause is the clearing of industrial forests (timber plantation), other large-scale plantations, small-scale agriculture, mining, and road construction for logging.

Not content with Sumatra and Kalimantan, deforestation is also happening on the largest island that is expected to be the last stronghold, Papua. The development of oil palm plantations in this area has also threatened the environment and wildlife. The island has around 30 million hectares of tropical forest and is considered one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. However, activities such as oil palm development, industry and mining that clear forests have accelerated the rate of deforestation on the island and sounded the alarm about climate change.

Deforestation has also led to the uprooting of indigenous people from their homelands, as is happening in Jambi. Orang Rimba, an indigenous community living in the forests of Jambi, is now being driven out of the forest by illegal logging. Then, they are forced to adapt to modernity that actually removes them from their previous lives. Orang Rimba are forced to enjoy watching soap operas about Jakarta people on television that actually uproot them from their roots.

Land clearing in orangutan habitat for plantations in East Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan (24/2/14).
Logs lying in a primary forest in South Papua (1/4/18).
An excavator loads natural forest timber onto a barge on Padang Island, Bengkalis, Riau (5/20/14).
A family of Orang Rimba living inside a company concession in Tebo, Jambi (8/8/12). Since the 1970s most of the Orang Rimba have been displaced from their own land by industrial plantation companies.

The loss of the same forests has also destroyed the lives of many wildlife. In Aceh, elephants have had to flee their felled forests, as happened to Raja, a Sumatran elephant, who entered a nearby plantation. Raja then became a captive for residents to negotiate with the government, demanding compensation for damage caused by protected animals. Wildlife become victims of such bargaining and sometimes end up dead, as Raja later did.

Deforestation threatens the survival of Raja and other wildlife in Gunung Leuser National Park in Aceh Tamiang, Aceh Province. Although the park is a World Heritage Site, illegal logging also threatens its future. One study found that every year around 21,000 hectares of land in the park is lost. Another source states that Aceh Province lost 216,818 hectares of primary forest in 15 years (2001-2016). In the same period, 2012-2017, at least 68 elephants died in the region, with the biggest cause (81%) being conflict with humans.

In the long term, these elephant deaths also put more pressure on tropical forests as carbon sinks to mitigate climate change. Elephants are among the species that grow new trees through their dung. They also dig up water for all living things in their habitat during the dry season. Elephants are the saviors of the environment, but they are increasingly being squeezed out of existence by deforestation.

After all, it is not only elephants that are under threat in the future due to deforestation, but also other animals, such as orangutans. This animal, which has been designated as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has experienced a 50% population decline in the last 20 years. This is not only due to poaching, but also habitat loss. Other sources state that at least 100,000 orangutans have disappeared in the last 16 years. The biggest losses have occurred in forest areas that have been deforested or converted into industrial plantations. As their habitat is destroyed to satisfy human greed, orangutans are driven out of their habitat. However, they face another threat, poaching by humans.

An elephant was allegedly poisoned to death in a plantation field not far from Teso Nilo National Park, Riau (4/6/13). Sumatran elephants are one of the most endangered elephant species in the world.
Some orangutans at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation rehabilitation center, Central Kalimantan (6/4/17).
Smoke rises from an excavator digging a peatland drainage channel in a nearby oil palm plantation in Rokan Hulu, Riau (23/6/13).
Nor Anisa (7) holds a banner during the Global Climate Strike in Palangkaraya City, Central Kalimantan (9/20/19).

The threat of extinction of elephants, orangutans and other wildlife is intertwined with the increasing threat to the Earth from climate change. Without preventing the massive loss of forests as the lungs of the Earth, it is possible that in the future, not only elephants and orangutans will perish, but also us humans.

Although sometimes heard faintly, voices against deforestation and climate change are also being raised. If on a global scale there are major actors, including teen icon Greta Thunberg, then in Palangka Raya there is Nor Anisa. In September 2019, Anisa, who was 7 years old at the time, held a poster with a demand in capital letters, ICAH DOES NOT WANT THE FOREST BURNED.

The demands of Icah, her nickname, are the demands of all of us.

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