Globe warms: rainforests burn

Forest fires rage across Indonesia and Brazil

Feature story - 12 September, 2006
In what is becoming an annual event, increasingly frequent and more intense fires are sweeping through the tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Brazil. The burning of the rainforests not only threaten biodiversity in the affected areas but, by contributing towards climate change, they also put the entire planet at risk.

A Greenpeace team has investigated and documented the forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, which have now become an annual phenomenon, thanks to the effects of unsustainable logging, and are the cause of a thick smog-like haze over the entire region which threatens the health of millions of people and adds to the problem of climate change.

In tropical latitudes, months pass without any rain and in the dryseason forests become susceptible to fire. These can occur naturallyand would normally not pose a serious problem, but clearing land as aresult of logging or to make way for plantations is exacerbating theproblem and every year the fires spread faster and further.

Greenpeaceteams in both Indonesia and Brazil have recorded the scale of theinfernos and are clear about the reasons why they are happening. Muchof the forests in the Indonesian province of Riau in Sumatra arepeatland forests, so normally protected from fire by their boggy environment,but industrial activity has changed all that. The forests are beingcleared for plantations of oil palms and acacia pulpwood for paper,creating the perfect conditions for fires at the same time.

"Oncethese peat swamps are exposed due to logging," Greenpeace forestcampaigner Hapsoro explained, "they dry out like a wet sponge exposedto sunlight and become extremely flammable. Once it starts burning,it's very difficult to stop without heavy rain."

The effects ofthe Indonesian fire also spread across the region. Smoke drifts acrossSouth East Asia, clogging the air above the Malaysian peninsular andincurring the wrath of neighbouring governments, and Hapsoro urged theIndonesian authorities to take urgent measures. "The Indonesiangovernment must seriously reconsider allowing any type of land clearingto be done in these areas to minimise the possibility of large anduncontrolled forest fires," he said.


In the Brazilian Amazon,fires have been witnessed in several protected areas and the Greenpeaceteam sent to investigate also saw rampant deforestation and illegallogging. In the Jamanzim National Forest, using natural resourcesresponsibly is permitted, but intense logging activity has beenobserved within protected areas.

Both regions boast some of themost diverse varieties of plant and animal life anywhere in the worldbut fragile habitats, already under pressure from human activities, arebeing pushed even harder by the increasing number and scale of thefires.

Rest of the world suffers too

Rainforestsplay a vital role in regulating the global climate and the more treesthat are felled, the more unpredictable the climate will become.

Tropicaldeforestation accounts for around 20 percent of global carbon dioxideemissions, a staggering amount that explains why 75 percent of Brazil'sown carbon dioxide contribution comes from forest conversion.

Butwith drought plaguing many areas - such as last year's catastrophicevent in the Amazon - the forests dry out and become even moresusceptible to fire. This in turn releases more carbon dioxide and smoginto the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and the cycle ofdestruction continues.

This isn't just a problem for Brazil andIndonesia but for the whole planet. Concrete efforts must be made at alocal level to protect rainforests from illegal logging and conversionto plantations, but there must also be international support to backthis up. Sustainable management of the forests allows local communitiesto support themselves and make a living.

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