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Why isn't more attention being paid to Indonesia's catastrophic wildfires?

A massive forest fire burning across Indonesia is wreaking havoc on the environment. Few are paying attention. 

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An Indonesian soldier checks on a peat land fire near Palangkaraya, central Kalimantan, Indonesia October 28, 2015. Indonesia's weather agency failed to predict that the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon this year would be worse than in 1997, a senior minister said on Wednesday, as the government considers declaring a national emergency due to forest fires. The fires raging across the archipelago have created a haze that has blanketed much of Southeast Asia in recent months and, according to authorities, have left more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory ailments.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

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A forest fire that has been raging since early October has claimed over 19 deaths and affected half a million lives in Indonesia. It has been called “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century.” 

The fire was set to clear land for palm oil and pulp-and-paper plantations. But things got out of hand due to a prolonged dry season and heavy winds from El Niño warming in the Pacific. Then things got really out of hand: endangered wildlife is at high risk of being exterminated, and six Indonesian provinces have declared themselves to be in a state of emergency. NASA has claimed it to be Indonesia’s worst fire.   

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But the fire, which has burned across the 5,000-kilometer length of Indonesia and released more CO2 than Germany does in a year, has gone virtually unreported by the mass media.

“It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so,” wrote George Monibot in a Guardian op-ed. “It should be on everyone’s front page.”

While Western media has covered the story, it has rarely been on page one. The New York Times wrote about the endangered wildlife being driven from the forests and rain that’s dampened the forest, and published an op-ed last week on how to save Indonesia’s rainforests. The Economist and the Wall Street Journal have written about the toxic haze spreading from the fire. The Washington Post and Bloomberg wrote about how the fires were polluting the climate.

The story is undoubtedly major. Damage from the fire is costing Indonesia more than $35 billion. Over 40 million people are breathing in fumes from the haze.

So why are so few paying attention to the crisis?

“Well, there’s a question with a thousand answers,” Mr. Monibot wrote. “Many of which involve power.”

Indonesia’s fire is expected to have devastating effects: palm oil production will drop by 10 to 20 percent, the bee population will be significantly reduced, and the haze is already spreading to other parts of Asia, such as southern Thailand.

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Even though the Indonesian fire isn't front page news, the story continues.


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