This past autumn, I saw a shocking headline: Forest fires in Indonesia were creating as many greenhouse gas emissions as the entire United States economy.
Between June and October 2015, an estimated 2.6 million hectares—or 4.5 times the size of Bali— burned to clear land for production of palm oil, the world’s highest value non-timber forest crop, used in food products, cosmetics, biofuels.
Recently, along with Vice President for Sustainable Development Laura Tuck and Indonesia Country Director Rodrigo Chaves, I visited South Sumatra, one of the provinces hardest hit by the fires.
We saw scrubby fire-adapted landscapes that had replaced biodiversity-rich peat swamp forests.
We spoke with local communities who explained how they covered doors and windows with wet towels, to help reduce the smoke. These families are among the half million people who suffered from fire-related respiratory infections, skin and eye ailments; their children were among the 4.6 million students who missed school last year due to fires, some for weeks at a time.
While some of these families lost earnings or assets due to the fires, others spoke of how fire improves soil quality.