The acrid smell of burning wood was unmistakable. Crouched on the muddy ground, and trying to look inconspicuous to the family of hornbills above, I let out a muffled cough. Even under the dense canopy of the world’s oldest rainforests, I could not escape the thick, odorous smoke. Commonly referred to as “the haze,” this toxic air pollutant blankets much of Southeast Asia during the dry season that begins in June each year. The culprit? Forest fires raging out of control in Indonesia.  

Two months after my visit to Taman Negara (National Park) in Malaysia, Indonesia’s fires are still burning. Moreover, it is not just Indonesia and its neighbors that are feeling the heat. Massive blazes are tearing through the world’s forests, and alarm bells are ringing over their impact. From South America to Africa to Australia, forest fires are increasing in frequency and intensity. And that is not the worst of it. Global warming is making forests more susceptible to fires, and this can drive a dangerous positive feedback loop where fires spiral into more fires.  

Indonesia’s current fire season is the worst the country had seen since 2015 when its daily carbon emissions exceeded the emissions from the entire US. Indonesia’s forest fires are started by smallholder farmers and plantation owners to clear land. The fires are difficult to control because they are burning on peatlands, a type of swamp forest formed from the accumulation of partially decayed plant matter tens of feet thick. 

Agricultural expansion leads to the rapid draining of these carbon-rich forests, turning them into massive tinderboxes. Once ignited, the highly flammable peat can burn for months as they smolder underground, and can only be put out by heavy rains. According to Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster (BNPN), nearly a quarter of the 330,000 hectares of forests lost to fire this year were peatlands. A new government regulation that redefined the types of peat landscapes to be protected has exacerbated the risks by opening up more peatlands for exploitation.

Across the Pacific Ocean, the “Earth’s lungs” are also burning at an unprecedented rate. Like Indonesia, the fires scorching the Amazon are intentional. Many blame President Jair Bolsonaro’s government for rolling back protections and opening up the Amazon to farming, logging, mining, and other economic interests. Since the 1970s, nearly 20 percent of the Amazon has disappeared, and during that time, the basin’s average temperature has risen around 0.6°C. Scientists have warned that the cycle of forest destruction will become irreversible if tree loss were to pass a “tipping point” of somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. 

Forests play a vital role as carbon sinks as they take out carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood mass. Forests could quickly turn into carbon sources if they continue to be chopped down, degraded, or burned. In developing countries, deforestation and fires are inextricably intertwined with economic interests. Until these countries begin to prioritize the sustainable use of nature’s resources, these climate-changing forest fires are not going away anytime soon. 

Featured Image via AFP