The Impact of Indonesia’s Forest Fires

With world leaders arriving in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), our next series of blogs will provide different perspectives on climate change from ETP’s staff and partners, and the work that we are doing to help the tea sector respond to it.

For Nelia Latief (ETP’s Regional Manager for Indonesia) human contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are all too apparent, as an estimated 1,354 million tonnes of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere from the burning of 2 million hectares of forest in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Put into perspective this is more than the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions for the last decade.

Indonesian Forest FiresThe pollution from these terrible fires has been appalling. People are dying from respiratory problems and day-to-day life is affected, with the closure of schools and people wearing masks to protect their health. The smoke plumes are now moving towards Jakarta, resulting in serious health hazards for millions of people and an economic loss to the tune of USD 50 million.

The root of the problem is quite easy to find. Sumatra and Kalimantan are blessed with peatlands that are rich in organic materials. These peatland water catchment areas prevent flooding during heavy rains and maintain humidity during droughts. In order to clear this land the perpetrators, have chosen the cheapest and easiest option by setting fire to them.

With the extended dry seasons known as El Nino, the impact is even more severe. As well as causing death and respiratory problems for humans, the forest fires also have a negative impact on agricultural systems. Agricultural crops require 3 key things: fertile soil, water, and a good amount of sunlight. If you couple these with good agricultural practice and land management then you can preserve the sustainability of the crop for many years to come. If something disrupts the system, then you can expect to witness huge drops in productivity and/or quality. Worryingly for the Indonesian tea sector and those that rely on it for a living, El Nino has caused a 50% drop of productivity on big estates and 80% across smallholding farming communities.

“The additional haze effect caused by the smoke is blocking out sunlight, which in turn affects the rate of photosynthesis by plants. Ultimately this is leading to even more productivity decreases of agricultural crops in this resource rich country,” explained Ahmad Haslan Saragih, Director of PTPN IV which owns tea and palm oil estates in North Sumatra.

The World Bank already estimates that 100 million more people will be in poverty by 2030 if we don’t universally tackle climate change. The report “Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty,” argues that the impacts of climate change will be huge. Many poor people will be suffering from more harvest failures caused by flooding, droughts, anomalies of weather patterns, and increases in temperature.

At ETP, we are well aware of this and much of our climate change work has helped vulnerable smallholder farming communities to adapt and build their resilience. To read more about our work go here.

Our hearts go out to those directly affected by the Indonesian fires and we know the effects of these will impact across the world for many years to come.