Almost 1,000 schools have been ordered to close throughout much of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia this week after air pollution readings hit dangerously toxic levels.
Smoke from illegal forest fires on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, lit as a cheap way to clear land for palm oil and paper plantations, have seen thousands of people suffer from respiratory illnesses and forced 636 schools to shut in Malaysia and hundreds more in Indonesia and Singapore.
The Air Pollution Index (API) in the Malaysian state of Sarawak hit 367 on Tuesday, a level deemed “hazardous.”
Just days before, the API reading in Borneo’s Kalimantan province — in the Indonesian portion of the island — reached 500, labeled “dangerous.“ In Singapore, levels reached 120, considered “unhealthy.”
Dozens of people have been arrested over suspected involvement in massive forest fires in Indonesia. Thousands of hectares of ecologically rich land have been burned, engulfing the region in a thick toxic haze. https://t.co/wmHc344IZHpic.twitter.com/NjSC0nkaKQ— CNN (@CNN) September 18, 2019
The neighboring nations regularly feel the effects of illegal forest fires.
This year, however, extended dry spells are thought to have exacerbated conditions. Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency claims over 328,000 hectares of forests have been set alight since January, with 40,000 people across Indonesia receiving medical care for breathing difficulties.
Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Ratri Kusumohartono says the fires are the worst the region has seen since 2015, when 2.7 million hectares of forest were destroyed — and the ordeal labeled a “crime against humanity.”
"These are the worst since 2015, and it’s only mid-September, this could go on through October and the rains [from the wet season] will only come in November," she said, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. "We had a firefighters team planning to go there in September or October, but we brought it forward to August because already in mid-July the communities we were talking to were being overwhelmed."
To reduce damage, Indonesia has distributed over 1.2 million masks and supplied thousands of vials of respiratory medicine to patients at temporarily opened clinics, the Straits Times reports. Over 9,000 firefighters and 42 helicopters have also been deployed to disperse 260 million liters of water onto the fires.
So far, almost 200 people suspected of igniting the flames have been arrested.
A range of environmental and human rights campaigners, however, have accused the nations of not doing enough.
Groups including non-profit Walhi and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation have called for the relevant governments to review the licenses of large corporations that grow palm oil, dispatch further medical aid, and stop blaming small, local farmers for the out-of-control flames.
“Unfortunately, the government always tries to deny, and even ministers issue misleading statements and tend to give a negative stigma to Indigenous peoples, local communities, and cultivators as a cause of the fire,” the coalition wrote in an open letter. “They hope to cover up the failure to prevent corporate crime, which we consider to be the party most responsible, other than the state.”