On October 25, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, had to cut his official visit to the United States short. Indonesia was burning. Every year, farmers in Indonesia purposely light their land on fire to quickly clear it for new crops. This technique, called slash and burn, is used around the world. But this year, an extra-long dry season coupled with a tropical storm left the country burning for over two months. Indonesia—and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia—is now covered in a toxic brown haze. Throughout the region, schools, airports, and other public services have had to shut down because of smog, and half a million cases of respiratory illness have been reported.
According to the Global Fire Emissions Database, on many days in September and October the CO2 emissions from the fires in Indonesia exceeded the daily average emitted by the United States. In fact, in those two months alone, the fires released more CO2 than what Germany emits in a year.
Slash and burn is popular in Indonesia because it is an easy way to clear large tracts of land and it readies the soil for palm, from which palm oil is made. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of the substance, which is used in cosmetics and biofuels. Indonesia’s palm oil output, two-thirds of which is exported, has increased nearly 50 percent since 2008. Even though slash and burn is technically illegal in Indonesia, the government has not regularly enforced the rules—or much monitored the agricultural sector. Right now, it is not even clear who started the fires: many of the private palm oil companies, which are owned by foreign conglomerates, claim that they do not use slash and burn.
What is clear is that small local farmers, displaced by these large private companies, do turn to illegal deforestation to maintain their livelihoods. In
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