Environmental Extremes

Indonesians Struggle with Daily Life as Forest Fires Rage On

Indonesia’s forest fires have led to school closures, flight cancellations, and road accidents.

by Ikhwan Hastanto; translated by Jade Poa
19 September 2019, 6:36am

Army personnel put out fires in West Aceh. Photo by Syifa Yulinnas via Reuters.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. In Asia-Pacific, each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes .

Indonesia's forest fires have reached an unprecedented scale. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has dubbed it an ecological disaster, while Greenpeace has urged the government to declare a national state of emergency. Currently, there are 179 individual suspects and four corporations being investigated for what the police believe to be acts of land-clearing by major players in the palm oil industry. Coupled with the heat of the dry season, this year’s forest fires are particularly bad.

When a four month-old girl died in the province of South Sumatra on Sept. 15, allegedly due to exposure to the forest fire-induced haze, Indonesians suddenly had a human face to link with the disaster. The baby, Elsa Pitaloka, suffered an acute respiratory tract infection after her village was enveloped with thick haze. Elsa's family rushed her to the hospital on Sept. 14, but found that she needed to be transferred to another facility that had an assisted breathing device. The other hospital was full, and she passed the next day while waiting for a spot.

As of Sept. 14, 5,071 heat centres have been identified on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, with the worst of them spread out across six provinces: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatera, South Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, and Central Kalimantan. The fires burn, albeit less intensely, in 22 other provinces.

After the recent escalation of the fires, which are a yearly occurrence, the national government decided it was time to take serious action. President Joko Widodo flew to Riau with an entourage of ministers on Sept. 16 to discuss disaster response methods.

Joko’s ministers have been downplaying the severity of this year’s forest fires. Some have denied that the haze has crossed the border to other countries even though this has routinely happened in the past, while others have claimed the fires are actually politically-motivated arson.

Kalimantan citizens have taken to social media to show the rest of Indonesia and the world just how bad the haze is.

"I just want everyone to know that we’re not okay. Here’s a video that shows the haze in South Kalimantan. Follow tips so you don’t have trouble breathing. Be safe, everyone," one Twitter user said.

"To my friends in Banjarbaru, please be careful. This was earlier this morning around the Ulin area. SO MUCH SMOKE! I couldn’t even see the huge Pertamina vehicle in front of me! I’m scared I won’t see a vehicle that’s right in front of me, and I’ll get hurt. Help us, @jokowi,” another tweeted at Indonesia’s president.

Another video posted on social media depicts a woman riding a motorcycle through the thick haze in Riau. "This makes me so sad," Twitter user @wiyora posted.

Journalist A. Tanoto uploaded a photo of the singed land in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, that resembled an apocalyptic hellscape.

Another Twitter user uploaded Air Quality Index Readings in Central Kalimantan, which exceeded 400 on Sept. 15, indicating highly toxic air. "Is this a mistake?" the caption read.

According to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), a total of 328,722 hectares of land have been destroyed by the fires, including 44,769 hectares in Central Kalimantan, 25,900 hectares in West Kalimantan, 19,490 hectares in South Kalimantan, 11,826 hectares in South Sulawesi, 11,022 hectares in Jambi, and 49,266 hectares in Riau.

Due to the severity of the smoke, the head of the Pekanbaru Educational Department decided to cancel school for two days for the sake of students’ health.

“Yesterday afternoon, we held an emergency meeting to address the effects of the haze. We have decided that schools will be shut down on Sept. 16 and 17,” Education Department head Maladi told local media. The Pontianak city government followed suit and shut down all elementary and middle schools until Sept. 18.

The fires are also affecting air travel. The Indonesian Minister of Transportation, Budi Karya Sumadi, has urged citizens flying to and from Riau to choose flights after 9 a.m. due to low visibility.

“Flying before 9 a.m. is not effective. Passengers must adjust their schedules in accordance with this,” Sumadi told local media. On Sept. 15, Lion Air cancelled 81 flights heading to and from affected areas, while 64 flights were delayed due to low visibility.

Indonesia’s vastly diverse wildlife has also been affected. In Central Kalimantan, the Fire and Rescue Department (DPKP) found squirrels, bears, and pythons burnt alive while putting out fires.

“Rangers found countless dead animals while attempting to extinguish the fires, including snakes, squirrels, and more. There were an alarming number of various breeds of snake,” DPKP leader Rihel, told local media.

One netizen uploaded photos of a giant singed python.

Orangutans’ habitats are also being consumed by fires. Last week, the Natural Resource Conservation Agency of Kalimantan rescued three orangutans who had fled their original habitats. The orangutans made their way to a local resident’s palm oil farm, where another orangutan and her baby followed. Luckily, the owner spotted them and called thee conservationists to rescue the displaced animals.

After loss of life, environmental destruction, and choking haze felt even by neighbouring countries, Indonesians and other Southeast Asians are now hoping President Joko’s visit will result in some serious action.