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As Rainforest Fires Rage Unchecked, Brazil and Indonesia Expand Environmental Disaster on Both Sides of the Globe

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  • by Diana Potter

VEGWORLD recently reported on the huge Amazon rainforest fires set to clear more farmland, and this ravaging of natural resources and rare species shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, It’s worse now than we reported earlier, with more than 8,000 fires discovered just since September 1 in Brazil’s Cerrado region — one of only 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. (Biodiversity hotspots are Earth's most biologically rich, and also threatened, regions.)

The Brazilian Cerrado is home to about 12,000 plant species, about half of them grown nowhere else, and 250 species of mammals including endangered giant anteaters and armadillos, maned wolves, jaguars, and marsh deer. Yet Brazil continues to expand its agricultural industries by burning these rare plants and creatures: Almost 50% of the country’s soybean crop is grown in the Cerrado. The fires there now outnumber those in the Amazon, with little sign that much is being done to control them.

And so it goes. Now Indonesia has entered the field big-time, sporting the worst rainforest fires ever seen in areas where they are deliberately set every year during the dry season. In Indonesia it’s the palm oil industry that can’t get enough of clearing rainforest for more farms and profits — and just as in Brazil, the voices of environmental activists are largely ignored. Also as in Brazil, the fires endanger humans as well as animals and plants via the heavy haze of smoke that drifts into towns and cities and even countries, including Singapore and Malaysia.

As of August 31 this year, the Indonesian fires have burned about 840,000 acres of rainforest, an area the size of Jamaica.

What’s being done? Well, the president has allowed as how the government was negligent, which would be difficult to deny given that it’s refused to take serious action to curb such fires since at least 2015. But admitting negligence is nowhere near enough, says environmental activist Khalisah Khalid of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest green NGO. “What about fixing these mistakes?”, she said during an interview with the newspaper Mongabay.

What, indeed. The government’s problems in preventing and controlling these fires include 1) no or little enforcement of fines levied on companies that set them and 2) poor coordination among government agencies responsible for preventing and fighting them. Then there’s the issue of poor funding. It appears that each affected district receives only about $2,000 yearly to pay for preventive and fire-fighting measures.

Khalid also points out that (perhaps no surprise) top government officials have business interests in the country’s agriculture and forestry industries, including palm oil production. The government has also refused to comply with rulings from Indonesia’s highest court that ordered it to carry out “meaningful fire prevention and mitigation measures.”

What lies ahead for these fires and the environment? They say hope springs eternal: Let’s hope we don’t wait an eternity for wiser heads to take charge — and take action.

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