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Leon Kaye headshot

Study: Almost 100,000 Deaths in Indonesia Linked to Forest Fires, Illegal Palm Oil

By Leon Kaye

According to a study released by Harvard University, smoke from agricultural fires caused approximately 100,000 deaths throughout Indonesia last fall.

The study, which had support from researchers at Columbia University and was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, comes at the end of another difficult summer in Southeast Asia. Smoke and haze from even more fires blanketed much of this island nation of 250 million people again this year, and caused air pollution problems beyond its borders. Press accounts suggest these fires were the worst in the country since 1997.

The research blames the burning of peatlands for releasing large amounts of fine particulate matter (PM2.5, which refers to the size of the particles), which the World Health Organization says is a leading cause of pollution-related deaths worldwide. PM2.5 was also blamed for early deaths in the U.S. in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report issued a decade ago. In Indonesia, Harvard researchers attribute most of these fires to the burning of land to make way for palm oil and timber plantations.

By combining satellite data, surface PM2.5 observations, smoke exposure levels and public health impact estimates, the study suggests 91,600 deaths in Indonesia were linked to the higher levels of particulate matter across the country. Another 7,700 cases of smoke-related mortality in Malaysia and Singapore could also be attributed to those fires. That number is over 1.5 times higher than the estimated number of people who died similar deaths in 2014, and is a mortality rate 2.7 times higher than in 2006.

Press accounts over the summer suggest this could be another grim year for Indonesian citizens. Fires have been so prevalent that earlier this week Indonesia’s most powerful Islamic council issued a fatwa (religious law) that sought to discourage farmers and agricultural companies from using slash-and-burn methods in order to clear land. And as reported by the Wall Street Journal, fires are being set across Indonesia’s remote West Papua province as palm oil companies seek more virgin land for this lucrative crop and fewer local regulations.

WWF estimates that palm oil is in about half of all food and personal care products worldwide. It helps with products’ consistency, performs well as an emulsifier and stabilizer, and allows crisp snacks to crunch in the mouth while cakes can long stay soft and moist. But the result has been widespread deforestation across Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two palm oil producing nations on earth.

And the organization tasked with ensuring that more palm oil is cultivated and produced responsibly, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), is either unable or unwilling to halt continued deforestation. As the world’s population grows and demand for this ingredient rises, watch for more environmental and human rights problems to fester as palm oil producers look to regions such as Africa and Latin America in which to grow more of this crop.

There is some hope on the horizon, as seen in villages such as Dosan, located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As a recent Guardian profile suggests, this community, right in the middle of palm oil country, is building dams and blocking canals to prevent the drainage that allows peatlands to dry, then be burned. Other studies show that closer cooperation between palm oil producers and local communities can help aid landscape restoration while preventing deforestation.

But fires are still being set in palm oil regions, as recent drone footage revealed. The Indonesian government has been both inept and out-manned at stopping this damage. The palm oil industry has also shown that it cannot police its wider supply chain. True, the Harvard study infers that technology can have a role in identifying the most dangerous fires so citizens can be warned. Data modeling can also gauge the best land-use scenarios over the next few decades to make better decisions and prevent more fires.

Nevertheless, it is time for the world’s largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) and food companies to do more than just make promises to source and support sustainable palm oil. These businesses profit the most from the use of palm oil; hence they have the resources and money to fuel efforts to stop what has been an ongoing tragedy for far too long.

Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye