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Center for International Forestry Research
One of many children affected.

Photos: Inside the toxic haze, a “crime against humanity” caused by Indonesia’s fires

By Steve Mollman

In Indonesia about half a million people are suffering from respiratory ailments, and at least 19 have died—most from breathing in smoke, some from fire-fighting accidents.

The cause: annual fires that are set to inexpensively clear land, making it more suitable for palm oil and pulp-and-paper production.

This year’s toxic haze, which has affected many nation in the region, has been exacerbated by exceptionally dry weather compounded by the El Niño weather phenomenon. Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia can expect a repeat of the haze for years to come, as has been the case for decades now. Media attention drifts away once the dry season ends, leading many to feel the problem has been taken care of—until it returns the following year, sometimes worse, sometimes not as bad.

Indonesian officials have consistently dismissed the complaints of its neighbors regarding the haze. Vice president Jusuf Kalla said this of Singapore’s concerns: “For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.”

Palm oil (or “green gold”) is an important source of revenue for Indonesia. The government has resisted calls to produce it in a more sustainable manner, and indeed encourages the clearing of forest to make way for more plantations.

On a number of days in September and October, the daily emissions from the fires surpassed those of the entire United States. One reason is that many of the fires occurred on tropical peatlands, where palm oil companies have been allowed to expand, leading them to drain and set fire to the land, releasing carbon that’s taken centuries to accumulate.

Luhut B. Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, said the country’s “one mistake” (paywall) was in approving palm oil concessions on 14.8 million acres of peatlands during the past decade. President Joko Widodo recently ordered a moratorium on such concessions, in light of the smoke-related deaths.

Meanwhile, the haze is so bad it’s been described as a “crime against humanity” by the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency and the ”biggest environmental crime of the 21st century” by Erik Meijaard, who coordinates the environmental research initiative Borneo Futures.

In mid-October, a team from the Center for International Forestry Research traveled to Central Kalimantan, one of the nation’s hardest-hit provinces, to conduct research. They also brought cameras, and have allowed Quartz to share some of their photos here.

The following photos are used with permission of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.