An area that was burned to clear land for plantations in 2015 in the province of Central Kalimantan. The fires in 2015 destroyed more than 1,650 square miles of forest in the province alone, or 16 percent of its total. Photo: Kemal Jufri / The New York Times

By Joe Cochrane
5 April 2016

NYARU MENTENG, Indonesia (The New York Times) – Katty, a docile, orange-haired preschooler, fell from a tree with a thump. Her teacher quickly picked her up, dusted off her bottom, refastened her white disposable diaper and placed her back on a branch more than seven feet off the ground.

Katty is an orangutan, about 9 months old, whose family is believed to have been killed by the huge fires last fall in the Indonesian regions of Borneo and Sumatra. The blazes are an annual occurrence, when farmers clear land by burning it, often for palm oil plantations. But last year’s fires were the worst on record, and scientists blamed a prolonged drought and the effects of El Niño.

The blazes destroyed more than 10,000 square miles of forests, blanketing large parts of Southeast Asia in a toxic haze for weeks, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and, according to the World Bank, causing $16 billion in economic losses.

They also killed at least nine orangutans, the endangered apes native to the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. More than 100, trapped by the loss of habitat or found wandering near villages, had to be relocated. Seven orphans, including five infants, were rescued and taken to rehabilitation centers here.

“This is the biggest in the world for primate rehabilitation, not just orangutans, but we’re not proud of it,” said Denny Kurniawan, the program director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, who oversees the care of 480 orangutans at seven sites in Central Kalimantan Province on the island of Borneo. “The number of orangutans here is an indicator of the mass forest destruction due to lack of law enforcement and the local government giving out palm oil concessions.”

The suffering of the wildlife is part of a larger story of corporate expansion in a developing economy crashing into environmental issues in an era of climate change.

Indonesia has approved palm oil concessions on nearly 15 million acres of peatlands over the last decade; burning peat emits high levels of carbon dioxide and is devilishly hard to extinguish.

Multinational palm oil companies, pulp and paper businesses, the plantations that sell to them, farmers and even day laborers all contribute to the problem. Groups like Greenpeace and the Indonesian Forum for the Environment put most of the blame for the blazes on the large plantations, which clear the most land.

While it is against Indonesian law to clear plantations by burning, enforcement is lax. The authorities have opened criminal investigations against at least eight companies in connection with last year’s fires, but there has yet to be a single high-profile case to get to court. […]

“Our challenge for now is, if we have information that orangutans should be rescued, we don’t know where we will relocate them because in Central Kalimantan there is no forest left,” Mr. Denny said. “Every day it’s estimated that we’re losing forests the size of a football field, and that’s orangutan habitat.” [more]

Indonesia’s Orangutans Suffer as Fires Rage and Businesses Grow



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