The unrecognized cost of Indonesia’s fires (commentary)

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  • As Indonesia’s forests go up in smoke, the world may be losing a lot more than we currently understand, argues Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler in this commentary that was originally published in Singapore’s Straits Times on September 30, 2019.
  • In one instance, deforestation in Borneo nearly eradicated a potential anti-HIV drug before it was discovered. The near-miss with the drug, Calanolide A, provides one vivid illustration of what is at risk of being lost as Indonesia’s forests are cleared and burned.
  • Other local and regional impacts from continued large-scale destruction of Indonesia’s forests may include hotter temperatures, more prolonged droughts, and increased incidence of fires.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Three decades ago, scientists surveying the forests of Malaysian Borneo discovered a plant extract that killed HIV in a test tube. When they returned to the field site to collect more samples, they were surprised to find the peat forest had been cleared. Subsequent surveys in the region proved fruitless, but the researchers caught a lucky break when they found a specimen in Singapore’s Botanic Garden.

Eventually scientists derived a drug from the tree that strongly inhibited HIV during clinical trials. The drug, Calanolide A, could become a novel addition to AIDS treatment regimes.

The near-miss with Calanolide A provides one vivid illustration of what is at risk of being lost as Indonesia’s forests are cleared and burned.

Fire burning through peat forest and an oil palm plantation in Sumatra in 2015. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

This year’s fires are the worst since 2015. Already more than 328,000 hectares — an area four-and-a-half times the size of Singapore — has been incinerated, generating some 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in a just a month and a half alone, from Aug 1 to Sept 18, according to data from the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

It will be a least another month before rains return to the region to douse the fires and clear the air of toxic smoke.

The current bout of fires adds to the overall worsening plight of forests across Indonesia — especially in Sumatra and Borneo. Over a quarter of the natural forests there have been lost since Calanolide A was first isolated in the 1990s.
The loss and degradation of these forests is exacerbating a negative feedback loop: increased fires further destabilize the very system that affords vital services at regional and global scales. For this reason, Indonesia’s forests should have been front and centre of climate change discussions throughout September’s UN General Assembly and climate-related meetings in New York.

They should also be the concern of citizens everywhere, including Singaporeans.

Degradation and destruction of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands is a globally significant source of greenhouse emissions that are warming the planet and exacerbating extreme weather like droughts, floods, and storms.

These impacts will hit poor countries hardest, but rising sea levels are a direct threat to Singapore’s territorial integrity as well as a looming security issue. The tipping point will be if, as projected, they render vast areas of Asia uninhabitable. That could trigger waves of environmental refugees throughout Southeast Asia.

Changes are expected to play out over decades, but Singaporeans could feel the impact of Indonesia’s dying forests much sooner via higher local temperatures and declining water availability.

Lowland rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Lowland rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Natural rainforests create a local cooling effect by blocking heat reaching the Earth’s surface. The forests also drive evapotranspiration, the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and other surfaces and by transpiration from plants; this leads to the formation of rain clouds.

Deforestation and replacement of native forests with plantations increases local temperatures by reducing this cooling effect.

The effect can be substantial: research published last year in Environmental Research Letters found that deforested areas in Borneo were 1.7 degrees Celsius warmer than forested areas, while oil palm plantations were 2.8 to 6.5 degrees hotter than primary forests.

Communities living in areas where forests have been converted for industrial monoculture plantations have long complained of increased temperatures where they live. Among poor agrarian communities already living near their critical thermal maximum – well beyond levels of tolerability – higher temperatures can make farming and other daytime activities unbearable, undermining livelihoods.

For Singapore, higher temperatures may be an inconvenience. The impact on water supplies could prove to be much more substantive.

On a regional scale, forests have been shown to function as giant water pumps that capture moisture off the ocean and carry it far inland. When forests are cleared, this cycle is disrupted, increasing the likelihood of drought. The question remains: What happens to regional water supplies and agricultural production if Indonesia’s forests fall below a certain threshold?

Unfortunately, no one really knows.

But the issue is alarming enough that it is regularly discussed in the context of the severe drought that affected Brazilian cities from 2014-2017. Scientists have warned that such droughts could become a regular occurrence if the combination of climate change and deforestation tip the Amazon to a drier savanna-like ecosystem, potentially shifting regional rainfall patterns. The ramifications of such a transition on food, water, and energy security would be considerable.

In Southeast Asia, if deforestation continues unabated, we could expect to see a similar scenario play out. Collapsing ecosystems are not a recipe for stability — ecological stability underpins economic stability, which in turn, underpins social stability and security.

While Singaporeans are understandably frustrated about the effects of the haze from burning of Indonesia’s forests, spare a moment to consider that Singapore investments have a part to play in this ecological disaster.

Gold and sand mining near Mandor, West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Gold and sand mining near Mandor, West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Some Singaporean companies are bankrolling the destruction of these forests through investments in several sectors, including plantations, forestry, energy and mining. While investors are concerned mainly with maximizing short-term profits, in the long run they are undervaluing Indonesia’s unique biological assets, replacing this storehouse of biodiversity with bulk commodities that can be grown widely across the tropics.

In the process, these investments are undermining the very well-being of Singapore, and the entire planet. This is hardly a recipe for enduring growth. Singaporean businesses and investors should be nourishing, sustaining, and restoring Indonesia’s natural assets instead of destroying them.

This article was originally published September 30, 2019 in The Straits Times under the title Indonesia: As forests die, expect hotter days, longer droughts. It has been republished here under an agreement with The Straits Times.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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