Short-sighted planning has caused the fires in north Indonesia, but they were avoidable.
The myriad wildfires have been raging for months now. Their sickly smoke chokes the air, turning the sky an opaque crimson color. This biblical and dystopian hellscape is not a dramatization, but a visualization of northern Indonesia.
This region of Indonesia, and especially the Jambi province, suffers the consequences of nearby palm oil plantations using the slash-and-burn method for clearing vegetation away before planting. The slash-and-burn method is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of controlled burning and cutting to clear away vegetation while leaving the soil unharmed. This is an annual occurrence, but this year is especially vicious because of the drought that has been affecting the region, which has made it easier for the fires to spread out of the intended burn area and begin consuming protected forest area. This, combined with an El Niñocurrent that helps keep the smoke in place, has created a post-apocalyptic and foreboding sky. As many as 1 million locals have suffered adverse respiratory effects because of this.
Slash-and-burn farming is illegal in Indonesia for this exact reason, and has been for many years. Government corruption is largely to blame for the blind eye repeatedly turned to this ominous phenomenon. Look, I will usually advocate for a mostly free market, but this is a case where it is all but imperative that the local government intervenes in this matter. Not only does this destroy the environment, and irreparably damage the physical health of this government’s constituents, but it should not be at all difficult to enforce.
One of humanity’s greatest pitfalls is a crippling tendency to rely on short-term thinking, a flaw which has manifested itself in Indonesia as of late. It is true that forcing another method of clearing vegetation would probably require increased manpower and see reduced profit margins for the plantations which operate there. A simple cost-benefit analysis reveals that the benefits of putting a stop to this (a healthier constituency which approves more of the government and a local ecosystem which is allowed to thrive in an environment free of wildfires borne of wanton carelessness) vastly outweigh the detriments.
The rest of the world generally hates when the U.S. takes up the mantle of “world police,” and it is true that we have a tendency to make things worse by intervening. This is one of those instances where investing in strengthening a democratic nation near the South China sea will not only help the environment, but also help improve U.S. standing in the region. If the U.S. were to commit an amount as small as 100 million U.S. dollars to disaster relief, the 812,000 acres of raging forest fires may be diminished, and the fact that Indonesia would not need to commit as much to this cause would pave the way for a reinforcement of Indonesia’s ability to enforce the slash-and-burn ban.
There are practical reasons beyond environmentalism to address this. If the world continues to sleep on the environment, to rely on short-term thinking and to ignore the implorement of people like environmental activist Greta Thurnberg, it’s only a matter of time before the adverse impact of mankind on our one and only planet becomes absolutely irreversible.