Toxic haze blanketing Southeast Asia has had two casualties so far with a four-month-old toddler and 60-year-old plantation worker succumbing to respiratory complications.
But humans are not the only ones affected by the ongoing peat and forest fires ravaging plantations across Indonesia.
In a statement released on September 17, 2019 by the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation, CEO Dr. Ir. Jamartin Sihite expressed concerns about the imminent spread of these fires to orangutan habitats.
He cautioned that, “Thus far, a total of 80 hectares of peat forest in our Mawas working area has been affected by the fires. Twenty hectares in the Sei Daha area, located near the Tuanan Research Center, and 60 hectares in Sei Mantangai, both in Kapuas District, Central Kalimantan, are burning.”
Three provinces in Central Kalimantan make up part of the 3,673 hotspots detected last week. The remainder three provinces are in the Sumatra region of Java.
The thick haze threatens to endanger the 355 orangutans currently residing at the Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre in Kalimantan and the surrounding pre-release islands. 37 young orangutans are already displaying symptoms of mild respiratory infection.
To alleviate the adverse impact of the constant smoke, rescuers are giving orangutans a daily dose of milk and multivitamins whilst limiting their outdoor activities to a few hours a day. They are also spraying enclosures with water during the day to help the endangered primates keep cool.
Neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore are not spared the hazardous air either.
Almost 2,500 schools have been shut down in the past few days in Malaysia, affecting 1.7 million students.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced two days ago the drafting of a new law penalising local companies that continue to practice slash-and-burn agriculture on their Indonesian plantations.
Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) registered an improvement Thursday night due to winds blowing from the Southeast, which helped disperse the haze.
Its Formula One GP race this coming weekend is set to continue albeit with a contingency plan. Organisers are keeping a close watch on PSI readings which can vary from hour to hour.
According to Dr. Henry Purnomo from the Indonesia’s Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), slash-and-burn remains the cheapest and therefore most popular method of clearing land.
Costs start at US$20 per hectare versus alternative methods that can cost upwards of US$400 per hectare. Until the economic incentive is addressed, whether with invention of cost-effective methods of clearing land or government regulation, Southeast Asia will continue to grapple with yearly episodes of poor visibility and hazardous air quality.