A World on Fire: Battling Blazes in Borneo’s Rain Forests

Emily Goodheart Kautz January 8, 2020 0
After several relatively quiet fire seasons in Indonesia, an abundance of blazes in Kalimantan (part of Borneo) and Sumatra in September 2019 has blanketed the region in a pall of thick, noxious smoke.

Borneo enveloped in smoke during the 2019 fires. NASA image by Joshua Stevens (LANCE MODIS Rapid Response)

Forest fires hit home particularly hard in 2019, as people in every corner of the Earth watched the world burn. Abnormal Arctic fires occurred in Alaska, Greenland and Russia’s Siberian province, which houses the largest forest in the world. California wildfires raged across the state, which research indicates were 500 percent larger due to human-induced global warming. The recent horrifying coverage of Australia’s bushfires has once again emphasized the crisis of climate change.

Human-set fires took center stage as the Amazon was set ablaze for cattle ranching. Satellite images of Central Africa show a region engulfed in flames as farmers cleared land for crops. Human-wildlife conflict led villagers to set fire to India’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Borneo’s jungles burned, replaced by monoculture plantations.

While sprung from different causes, these fires were all made more severe by hotter, drier temperatures, and their aftermath leaves further climatic devastation in their wake. According to CNN, in Indonesian Borneo, “infernos have ignited a climate bomb with disastrous consequences for the world in years to come.” The CNN Special Report gives a heartbreaking account of the destruction of Borneo’s rain forests, detailing the struggles of those battling the blaze.

Palm oil plantation in Borneo.

Palm oil plantations span for miles in Borneo, replacing tracts of lowland rain forest. © Courtney Nachlas

How did the inferno come to be? Palm oil production is the primary culprit. Palm oil is a product found in a plethora of foods and household goods. It thrives in lowland rain forests, and massive tracts of jungle are being cleared to support this cash crop. Indonesia is in the midst of a modern-day gold rush, and currently supplies 55 percent of the world’s palm oil.

But fires set by palm oil companies and landholders have grown out of control. In Borneo this year alone, fires tore across 3,311 square miles of pristine rain forest and the peatlands that lie beneath it. “Fires smolder deep underground in thick layers of dead plant matter—peatlands—and can reignite almost as soon as they’re extinguished,” CNN reports. This peat-swamp is the largest natural terrestrial carbon sink on the planet, and from August to October 2019, the blazes caused 626 megatons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere.

The plight of the people and animals there became dire, as breathing conditions worsened and habitats were destroyed. In the summer of 2019, an estimated 920,000 people were affected by acute respiratory problems due to toxic fumes from uncontainable fires. Orangutans fought for their lives amid smoke and ashes, leaving this critically endangered species ever more vulnerable.

An orangutan bunches on a palm fruit in Borneo.

As orangutans are displaced from their forest homes, these fruit-eating primates must seek food elsewhere, increasing their risk of coming into conflict with humans. © Court Whelan

As global demand continues to grow, a surge in palm oil production is causing deforestation on a massive scale. In response, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created, with the aim of transforming the market to make responsibly-sourced palm oil the norm. RSPO envisionsa space where oil palm, the environment, and local communities can coexist in harmony.” CNN outlines conservation measures implemented by the RSPO, including how “it prohibits its members from starting land clearance fires and from planting on peatlands, and monitors plantations using satellite technology.” RSPO also has requirements in regards to the size of plots, landscape connectivity and fair labor.

Consumers have a crucial choice when it comes to what they purchase—those products that contain unsustainable palm oil and those that are made with palm oil produced sustainably. World Wildlife Fund has a Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, which is a helpful online resource to use when seeking out supermarket brands that are RSPO-certified.

In addition to a move toward sustainably-produced palm oil, ecotourism provides another positive economic driver. Borneo is home to some of the oldest and grandest rain forests on Earth, with many unique, endemic species, including clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, sun bears, pangolins, flying fox bats, and of course, Bornean orangutans. Rare orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants are among the 15,000 plants found there. This biodiversity hotspot is a veritable Eden for nature travelers, and the value of tourism in the region helps support local communities while encouraging the protection of wildlife-rich habitats.

Nat Hab travelers in Borneo's rain forest

Nat Hab travelers explore the wilds of Borneo. © Gavin Lautenbach

The devastating impacts of a world on fire have ultimately been caused by our unquenchable desire for more—the production of more resources; the clearing of more land; the generation of more income. But as we increase our consumption year by year, the growing number of regions consumed by fires casts shadows on human “progress.” As firefighters struggle to quell the flames, humankind’s insatiable hunger must be abated, lest we risk further environmental catastrophes. It is clear we must reevaluate our relationship with the natural world and how the choices we make affect animals and habitats. It is our hope that crises like the fires in Borneo and those occurring across the globe bring attention to these irreplaceable natural realms, and help show others why they are worth protecting.

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