KENYALA, Indonesia—The orange-furred toddler survived one of the most destructive wildfires on record, but with a plastic tube leashing her neck to the porch of a small hut, she hardly appears to have found salvation. A villager, Kasuan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, found the orangutan cowering from wild dogs last fall, perched in one of the surviving oil palm trees in a scorched plantation near the burned forest that had been her home. The rest of her family, Kasuan tells me, perished in the epic forest fires that overtook Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, as woodlands were burned to make room for plantations that harvest palm oil, a $50 billion business. The ubiquitous ingredient is used in half of the packaged food and cosmetic products found on supermarket shelves, from Oreo cookies to Colgate toothpaste. At least nine of the highly endangered primates died during last year’s conflagrations. Three weeks before I arrive in March, three more orangutans, all of them female and one of them a baby, burned to death when the annual fires ignited months early.
“If we didn’t rescue the orangutan from the haze and the fires, it would die like the others,” Erni, Kasuan’s wife, says. When the ape, which they named Sumbing, isn’t tied to the post, Erni carries her like one of her own children. “I hope I can look after it and keep it healthy.”
But the couple has no idea how to care for her when she grows into an adult weighing well over 100 pounds, if the animal survives that long. Compared with wild orangutans I’ve photographed, Sumbing’s hair and limbs look thin, and she seems frightened and depressed. She snaps at me when I first arrive but calms down when I pat her, and eventually she takes my hand for a moment. “I hope there are some authorities that will come to take care of the orangutan,” Kasuan says, contradicting his wife’s hopes, “because we can’t feed it what it needs.”
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The orangutan population has fallen 50 percent over the past 60 years to around 50,000 individuals, and 55 percent of its habitat has been lost to palm oil plantations, logging, and other development since the 1990s. Rescue workers from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation plan to visit the village to take the would-be pet to one of their sanctuaries for rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. But they had better arrive soon. Another baby orangutan held by villagers here was reportedly sold to a manager at a nearby palm oil plantation, likely for resale into the illegal pet trade. The foundation is rapidly running out of forests in which to release rehabilitated orangutans. Nonetheless, at least one villager thinks the orangutan is better off than the humans here.
“If I could change into an orangutan, I would,” says the villager, who is named Langkai TN. He points out how much attention the international press gives the redheaded primates while ignoring the suffering of indigenous communities such as his. He endured months of smoke, lost farm fields to the fires, and was sent to jail for six months when he marked the boundaries of his land to keep rapidly expanding palm oil plantations from taking his property. “If I was an orangutan, maybe you would carry me out of here,” Langkai TN says.
Last fall, most of the human and animal residents of Borneo were trying to escape the smoke and flames overtaking the third-largest island in the world. For more than 20 years, Indonesia’s annual burning season has devastated human health, endangered animals, and accelerated climate change. The fires are even worse when El Niño brings drought to the nation, and last year’s record El Niño drove infernos with near biblical intensity.
The conflagrations, according to conservationists, threaten one-third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans, as well as the nation’s highly endangered clouded leopards, sun bears, Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and elephants. But the impacts of the fires spread far beyond the burning forests and peatlands.
Last year Indonesian smoke, an annual blight on the region known as “the haze,” forced more than half a million people as far away as Thailand to seek treatment for severe respiratory problems. Indonesia dispatched warships to evacuate villagers who were trapped for months in the toxic orange fog but not before at least 19 people, most of them children, choked to death. The World Bank estimates last year’s fires cost Indonesia at least $16 billion, more than twice the price tag of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the country’s Aceh province. On 40 days last fall, wildfires in Indonesia released more greenhouse gas than the entire United States economy.
Environmental activists in the West tend to focus on saving Indonesia’s forests and wildlife by pressuring multinational corporations to buy sustainably produced palm oil. The reality on the ground, though, is more complex and offers a lesson for those fighting for forests around the world. Corruption, a dysfunctional legal system, and the role of thousands of small farmers in the burning all fan the flames of the fires set by palm oil producers. Increasingly, Indonesians are taking matters into their own hands to fight the fires at their source, the carbon-rich peatlands that underlie Borneo’s and Sumatra’s forests and that can spontaneously ignite an inferno. And the key to fighting palm oil deforestation maybe something as simple as a map.
The Fires Below
Indigenous Indonesians like those in Kenyala have practiced slash-and-burn agriculture for centuries, but the nation’s apocalyptic fires only started burning 20 years ago. Late in his long dictatorship, Indonesian President Suharto attempted to end food shortages in the world’s fourth-most-populous nation by carving a rice farm the size of Connecticut out of the vast peat swamps of Kalimantan. In the late 1990s, his Mega Rice Project cut 2,920 miles of canals through the landscape to drain the soggy peat. When it was dry, the peat was a rich mulch for farming but also an enormous bed of woody fuel for fires.
Since then, most of the greenhouse gases, haze, and volatility of Indonesia’s infernos have originated not in the dense rainforest but in the peat—the spongy layer of partially decayed and waterlogged vegetation that extends as far down as 60 feet beneath many of the forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Peatlands hold up to 28 times more carbon, accumulated over centuries, than rainforests growing on mineral soil. The peat is about as carbon rich as the coal it will turn into. As in coal seams, fires in peat can burn for years, can travel in unpredictable directions underground, and are notoriously difficult to locate and snuff unless the peat is kept wet.
Suharto’s project has produced mega-fires virtually every year since the first canals cut into the peat but no rice.
In the years since, large Indonesian and foreign corporations and small farmers alike have dug thousands more canals to convert peatlands to palm oil plantations. That’s turned one of the planet’s most effective carbon sinks into one of its biggest sources of climate-warming gases. A single acre of peatland rainforest can release 15,000 tons of carbon when it’s converted into a palm plantation. If the dry peat ignites, it can release the carbon it has been accumulating for centuries in a matter of days.
Flying into Sumatra on a visit in August 2014, I saw grids of canals beneath clouds of smoke, but I didn't understand how they were connected until I landed and traveled into the palm oil plantations of Riau province. With my first step off the road, I sank up to my shin in the peat.
Fires deep in peatlands are extremely difficult to reach on foot, and the techniques used by American wildland firefighters—digging a line of unburnable mineral soil around the blaze—don’t work where the ground itself is a deep bed of wood chips. Peat fires can burn undetected for weeks, burrowing beneath unburned forests and rising randomly to ignite the jungle.
At one blaze that had been burning for weeks I joined a dozen men in flip-flops and T-shirts from a collective of small farmers. They dug 10 feet into the peat to reach groundwater but struggled for an hour to draw enough water for a single hose to spray down the smoky forest. They never ventured far from the road to engage the fire.
I could see why when I made my way across burned and rotting logs that bridge canals and occasionally sank to my knees in the drained peat. Smoke rose from the ground to my north and south and sometimes from my footprints. I stood on something akin to a field of charcoal that could ignite beneath me at any moment.
Down the road I saw a farmer named Sarino strip to his threadbare briefs and jump into a canal with a small bucket to throw water on the flaming peat in his fields. After he climbed out, he stomped the embers with his bare feet. Behind him, one of three helicopters fighting the blazes overtaking Riau dropped buckets of water on a burning acacia plantation. “The helicopter has been coming for almost two months to fight the fires,” Sarino told me. He said he didn’t know who ignited the fire, but it started near the plantation.
Sarino raises an Indonesian vegetable called caladi, along with oranges, cassava, limes, and bananas, but, he said, no oil palm. Seedlings of the tree, however, filled dozens of pots sitting between his house and the burning field. I wondered whether he would soon add palm to his portfolio of crops. And whether he might have started the fire he was trying to snuff. Almost all of the fires in Indonesia are started by humans, most of them clearing fields for farms and plantations.
Near Sarino’s farm I climbed atop one of the oil pipelines that line most of Riau’s roads to photograph the smoking forest. Fauzi, a firefighter with the forestry ministry, joined me. He noted that nearly 2,500 acres burned in the last couple of weeks. “It will be bigger this year compared to last year due to El Niño," he said.
Fauzi said that in the previous month police detained 16 suspects for igniting fires to clear land to plant palm. Most of the suspects were small farmers; one or two were workers from palm plantations. But, Fauzi said, the villagers who get arrested for starting fires are often paid by the owners of the land or a representative of a palm oil company to light the fire.
Dutch colonists brought the West African oil palm fruit tree to Indonesia in the early 20th century, but the nation didn’t ramp up production of palm oil until the 1970s, becoming the world’s largest producer in 2007. Today Indonesia and Malaysia produce more than 85 percent of the world’s palm oil, which is found in scores of products in any given supermarket anywhere, including the organic market across the street from my home in Colorado.
The fruit is half oil, making it the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine. With a high melting point, a spreadable consistency, natural preservative properties, and no odor, it’s a perfect ingredient in everything from peanut butter to pastry dough to lipstick and biofuels. European limits on genetic modifications (which palm doesn’t need), U.S. bans on trans fats (which it doesn’t have), and the demand for quality food oil by the growing middle classes in China and India are driving a palm oil boom. In 2013 the world consumed 55 million metric tons of palm oil, nearly four times what it used 20 years earlier. Since 2000, consumption of palm oil in the U.S. has increased sixfold.
The popularity of palm oil can be measured in the destruction of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands. Between 2000 and 2012, according to Belinda Arunarwati Margono, who collects data for the Indonesian forestry ministry, the nation leveled more than 15 million acres of its native forest—an area nearly the size of Ireland. Indonesia burned nearly four times as much forested land in 2012 as it did in 2000.
In 1985 Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantations. Twenty years later, palm covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects it will cover at least 100,000 square miles. If the 75,000 square miles of palm plantations still to come end up on peatlands, they will be a disaster for the climate as well as for orangutans and indigenous Indonesians who depend on those forests. Researchers estimated that in 2012 nearly 70 percent of the carbon released during the transformation of Sumatran rainforests into palm oil plantations came from peatlands.
In late March, outside the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center on Sumatra, I stop at a concrete bridge washed into rubble by a monsoon-gorged canal. Another consequence of the clearing of the peatland forests is flooding, as monsoon rains tend to run off the waxy surface of drained or burned peat. I pick my way across the wreckage and find that the once-dense rainforest on the other side—part of a buffer zone surrounding the orangutan refuge and once the heart of the apes’ habitat—has been reduced to a pile of charred wood. Not a single native tree survived. Instead, hundreds of green fronds rose with the regularity of fence posts. Although strict laws prohibit land-clearing fires or the expansion of agriculture onto peatlands, the smoke hadn’t even cleared before someone planted palm on the desiccated ground. I walk a mile around burned peat to get to the orangutan center.
“The area burns every year due to palm oil expansion and some illegal logging,” says Agung Monterado Fridman, the coordinator for communication and education at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. “We’re very concerned about the recent burn into the buffer zone and that it was already planted with palm.”
The two dozen orangutans I see in enclosures at the center—there are 484 at the organization’s various facilities—breathed the same smoke that sickened and killed Indonesians nearby, but masks aren’t an option for the orangutans. Ten juvenile orangutans required treatment for respiratory illnesses during last year’s fires, Fridman tells me. Dealing with smoke inhalation by the orangutans is a relatively new challenge for the organization that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. “In 2010 so many orangutan had infections of the respiratory system, we can’t fit them all in the clinic,” he tells me. “We had to treat them in the hall and in tents.”
If the smoke gets much worse this burning season, the orangutans will have to be removed to a safer location, which would be a more complicated task than evacuating a village, as it requires sedating the full-grown apes.
Inside a large caged play area, rescued orangutans swing from bars, roll in tires, and decorate themselves with orange paper they tear and chew. The number of orangutans orphaned by the 2015 fires left the sanctuary’s baby house badly overcrowded with rescued infants. They sleep in multicolored laundry baskets, many of them wearing diapers, then ride together in wheelbarrows into the forest, where their human babysitters give lessons in how to find fruit in the jungle, build nests of leaves, and avoid predators. I hope that Sumbing, the orphaned orangutan I met on my arrival in Borneo, can join them, but her rehabilitation will take longer than those that are rescued directly from the forest. Unlike the villagers who rescued Sumbing, the center’s trainers keep the orangutans from becoming too dependent on or trusting of humans.
During last fall’s fire, while veterinarians safeguarded the health of the orangutans living at the facility, teams of rescuers headed into the burning peatland rainforests. They saved dozens of the animals, darting one full-grown orangutan above the Mangkotub River in the flooded peat of the Kapuas District. They stood in chin-deep water with a net to catch the animal when it fell unconscious from a tree. Tony Setiono, the foundation’s most experienced rescuer, and Arno, his protégé, carried the animal, which weighed more than 100 pounds, through the swamp. When the water got deep, they swam with the sedated orangutan on their backs while trying to keep its head above water. After they got the animal in their boat, they found another adult orangutan, this one face down in the river. When they turned it over, they found it hadn’t burned but had been run through with a spear.
“The orangutan was looking for food in the rubber plantation,” Fridman says, noting that the rescuers also found timber from illegal logging operations nearby.
Conservationists say more of the primates die from encounters with humans when they are driven from the forest by the fire than are killed by the flames. “They start to go to the village, and they get into conflicts with the farmers,” says Okta Simon, conservation coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia. If the staff manages to retrieve Sumbing from the village porch, the rescuers will have saved 80 orangutans displaced by the fires. Sixteen have been released in Sabangau National Park, a few hours away.
It’s not as though Indonesia and the world haven’t been trying to stop the fires and deforestation. In 2010, Norway promised Indonesia $1 billion as an incentive to keep its forests intact. Singapore in 2014 passed a law allowing regulators there to impose fines of up to $2 million on local and foreign companies that contribute to the haze. During the peak of last year’s burning, Indonesia arrested seven people tied to companies implicated in the fires, including several executives. Earlier this month, the U.S. multinational Unilever canceled contracts with the IOI Group, a Malaysian palm oil producer and trader tied to deforestation and community conflicts. Leonardo DiCaprio visited Sumatra’s Leuser National Park, where he used social media to criticize the palm oil industry, deforestation, and threats to the park’s endangered orangutans and elephants.
After years of pressure Wilmar, the Singapore-based company that controls 45 percent of the palm oil trade, and Unilever, one of the world’s largest palm oil buyers, announced a “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy” to protect peatlands and orangutan habitat from expanding palm oil plantations. Other palm oil companies, most notably Golden Agri Resources, committed to no-deforestation pledges after Unilever, Nestlé, Kraft, Burger King, and other customers dropped it as a supplier.
Optimism arrived in 2014 with the election of President Joko Widodo, who is largely seen as a man of the people and has taken rapid and ambitious steps to snuff Indonesia’s fires. The first was to clean up the corruption in Indonesia’s forestry ministry, which a 2012 study by the country's Corruption Eradication Commission cited as the most crime-ridden sector of Indonesia’s government.
An audit by Ernst and Young found that a forestry ministry fund established to replant cut and burned forests lost $5.2 billion to fraud between 1993 and 1997. Human Rights Watch reported that between 2007 and 2011, illegal logging and mismanagement cost Indonesia’s forestry industry more than $7 billion. Although timber companies are required to consult with communities affected by their operations and to adhere to strict environmental impact assessments, such obligations are rarely fulfilled. Government records showed only 16 percent of forestry permits went through the required consultation with affected communities.
In 2014 the Corruption Eradication Commission sentenced Riau Gov. Rusli Zainal to 14 years in prison for bribery, approving illegal timber operations, and doctoring maps to legalize plantations in protected forests and peatlands. He was one of five Riau officials sent to prison for forestry-related crimes. Since 2000, some 300 regional Indonesian leaders have been charged with corruption, most of it linked to the nation’s forests.
It’s not just corrupt officials, greedy corporations, and our appetite for creamy chocolate and cookies made possible by palm oil that’s driving the devastation of Indonesia’s forests. It’s the maps.
At least eight government agencies make maps of Indonesian land. Then there are the maps put together by palm, pulp, and paper companies; others are made by conservationists to protect wildlife habitat, high-carbon landscapes, and indigenous communities. Still others are drawn by districts and villages. Few of the maps agree on boundaries, scales or standards, and that lets palm plantations and logging companies exploit the conflicts between the maps to encroach on forests and peatlands that are supposed to be off-limits. It has proved all but impossible to create a zoning map to govern the protection of forests and indigenous communities.
“We’re talking about millions of conflicts between the maps,” says Widya Astuti, the advocacy manager at the nonprofit group Hutan Riau, who serves as my translator and guide in Kalimantan. Her organization is working to address Riau's “map crime,” in which government officials or companies exploit conflicts between maps or change them to allow plantations and timber operations to take protected forests or village lands. A report from the nonprofit Consortium for Agrarian Reform found that in 2013 there were 369 land conflicts involving 3.2 million acres of land just among government agency maps.
During the fires of 2014, farmer Suparyanto feared he would lose his land because of a map conflict with a plantation owner. All of the peatlands around his village of Tanjung Leban in Sumatra burned in the El Niño–driven fires, yet in the middle of the devastation in 2014 I found his rough but pretty blue house with green satin curtains billowing from its windows. Two palm trees still grew in front of the house along with a few clusters of flowers, but beyond the yard, the ground was burned black for miles in every direction. Suparyanto, the patriarch, lived in the house with his wife, his three children, and his brother.
Suparyanto planted palm saplings on his 10 acres of land and harvested palm at a large plantation nearby. “Every year there is a burning season, but this year was the worst one,” Suparyanto told me as we sat cross-legged on the floor of the house he built himself. “I hadn’t seen fire that time of year before.”
He joined more than a dozen other people to fight the fire on a nearby plantation in the hope that they could extinguish the blaze before it spread to their homes and fields. “I didn’t sleep for 36 hours,” he said. “Then I heard that the fire was getting close to my land.” He returned to his home on a motorbike with a borrowed pump and hose and kept the blaze back until he couldn’t take the heat and smoke. “I was very afraid that my house would burn, but after I left I was so tired I slept in the road.” His house survived, but five nearby homes burned along with the village school and all of the villagers’ crops.
He was worried something worse would soon follow. Just a few hundred yards down the road from his home, the only other house standing in the charred peatlands was one built after the fire. It was a security checkpoint for the Minimas company, which owns the acacia plantation near where the blaze started. Suparyanto has a deed from the chief of the subdistrict showing his ownership of the 10 acres where he built his homestead, but representatives from the palm plantation have repeatedly visited him to show him maps they claim prove the land belongs to the company. The day before my visit Suparyanto noticed a pile of concrete stakes used to mark off land claims in front of the new security hut. “Can you help us keep the company from taking our land?” he asked.
Even without all the competing interests, mapping peatlands is difficult because the depth of the peat is even more important than the amount of land it extends over. A fire in peatlands 50 feet deep will release much more carbon than one burning in peat one foot deep. Most efforts to map peatlands meet resistance from forestry and agricultural interests that would like to keep expanding their operations onto peatland.
Earlier this year, Indonesia, in partnership with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, announced the Indonesian Peat Prize, which will award $1 million to create a methodology for mapping peat.
“Political sensitivity on the peat data set is high,” says Andika Putraditama, the outreach officer for WRI Indonesia, which is managing the competition. “We want to have a scientific panel that can weigh in with opinions about what would be the best methodology for peatland maps and keep the politics out of it.”
Giving a Dam
The Indonesian government seems impotent to stop the fires. Grassroots efforts, however, are making progress in restoring peatlands and preventing fires by damming the canals that drain them of water.
The first dam I see in Borneo hardly seems up to the job. Branches tied together like the walls of a tiki bar form two fences across an eight-foot-wide canal. Dirt packed between them barely seems able to hold back the water, much less stop the nation’s fires. But dams, an environmental blight in much of the rest of the world, are proving key to Indonesia’s salvation. By holding water in the peatlands that the canals would have drained to rivers and the sea, dams can keep the peat moist enough not to burn.
“We actually need hundreds of dams in the Mega Rice Project,” says Nordin, the director of Save Our Borneo, who led the effort to dam the largest of the Mega Rice Project’s canals. It took 30 people a dozen days using timber and debris from burned forests to build the 80-foot-wide structure. But to keep the peat from drying out and burning again he estimates they will need 300 dams just in the primary canal, which is 239 miles long.
“I also have a plan to close the canal every one to two kilometers with explosives,” Nordin says. Blowing apart the canals would block the flow of water draining through the canals and open channels back into the peat to help rewet it.
Nordin's organization doesn’t have the resources to build more dams, so he has given his plans to the government’s new Peatland Restoration Agency, which was formed by the president after last year’s fires. The agency, however, has no budget, and Nazir Foead, the former World Wildlife Fund conservation director in Indonesia who was tapped to run the agency, cautions that it does not have staff or authority to force plantation companies to cooperate in keeping the peat wet.
Suwido H. Limin, the director of the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) at the University of Palangka Raya, has been fighting the draining of peatlands for 20 years. (The government labeled him a terrorist for his opposition to the Mega Rice Project.) Lingering health problems from spending a month firefighting in the middle of the peat swamps last fall have landed Limin in the hospital during my visit.
Since 1997, Limin, CIMTROP field coordinator Kitso Kusin, and a couple dozen local volunteers have trekked into the burning peatlands every year carrying drills, hundreds of feet of pipe, portable pumps, and hoses. They camp in the forest for weeks, drilling to water deep below the peat and then spraying it on flames in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, for months.
When the fires aren’t burning, CIMTROP is building dams, but they are not universally popular. Villagers accustomed to using canals for transportation, plantation workers attempting to dry more potential cropland, or illegal loggers who use the waterways to transport timber often break the dams soon after they’re installed. “We try to make the peat wet, and other people, they want to make it dry,” says Kusin.
A 2014 study of the dam effort published in the journal Catena found that blocking canals raised the water table in drained peatlands, but more research is needed to determine the long-term effectiveness of the strategy.
CIMTROP pays villagers to keep an eye on the dams, patrol to stop illegal burning, and find fires before they get big. Much of their job is encouraging more traditional uses of fire as well as using borders to contain their blazes and keep the peatlands wet. “Peat is good for the farmer,” says Kusin. “Peat is better for the forest.”
And the planet.
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