The Worst Ecological and Humanitarian Disaster in History…and Nobody Seemed to Care.

Imagine you live on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, a city in the Kalimantan province of Indonesia. As you walk to work, you see people quickly scurrying on the road, with smog masks covering their face. You did not have access to a mask due to a shortage, and are therefore subjects to the hazardous fumes that circulate throughout the air.

This was the reality for a person living in central Kalimantan in 2015. Also known as the worlds worst humanitarian and ecological disaster is human history.

Firefighters Attempt To Extinguish Indonesia Forest Fires

South Sumatra, Indonesia

Indonesia is currently the largest producer and exporter of Palm Oil, worldwide. The products high yield and the ease at which it grown in Indonesia’s peat lands makes it a valuable resource. However, the environmental results are detrimental.

“The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe” (Monbiot.)

With each hectare of peat land cleared, 3,0750-5,400 tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. However, with the large subsidies that the government provides to palm oil producers, there is little incentive to stop production.

When these areas are slashed and burned to make way for new crops to be planted, the highly flammable peat land, mixed with dry climate conditions have resulted in vast forest fires in the region.

“It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smolder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide” (Monbiot.)

This event had been called a “crime against humanity”, however, it has also resulted in a large loss of biodiversity in the region. Among the animals affected are orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran tiger, most of which were labeled endangered prior to this ecological disaster.


So enough with the facts. The idea that I really want to explore is the fact that nobody really knew, or cared about this event. Indonesia reached out to other nations for help and was met by closed doors.

This nation is the 4th most populated country in the world, with a population of 250 million and is also one of the most biodiversity rich places on the planet.

While this environmental catastrophe was occurring, the media was discussing McDonalds new “mcPick 2” deal,  Donald Trumps recent racist remarks, and dress that may have been black or may have been blue.

“The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening” (Monbiot).


So after reading this, you may be wondering, who is to blame and what can we do? Well, this isn’t a simple answer. Some blame the Indonesian government for allowing these agricultural practices in such a fragile environment. Some blame the media for glossing over the story. While others blame the large companies who use palm oil in their products–Pepsi, Starbucks ect. Yes, you can choose to not purchase products with Palm Oil, but we are also dealing with a large export of a country with a fragile economic system. By using products with sustainably produced Palm Oil, you could help promote the sustainable production of this product, while also supporting this nations economy. Indonesians have a very strong sense of nationalism, and shaming this nation for these crimes will probably do more harm than good.


The most effective thing we can do it reach out, and offer our help. Some countries with a large interest in the environment have been known to help out countries in the midst of ecological disasters. For example, Norway payed Brazil billions of dollars for their efforts in conservation. This kind of idea could incentivize the Indonesian government to take action.

These fires, have since been tamed, but this doesn’t not mean the land or people have healed. There have been 100,000 premature deaths reported due to air quality. Ecological disasters like this have been effecting the citizens and the biodiversity of nations all around the world. However, little action is ever taken and most people forget about it a few days after they’ve scrolled past it in their facebook news feed. Let us not forget this grave ecological and humanitarian disaster, and hope they the next time something like this happens, we will respond with support and understanding to solve these issues that effect the entire globe.





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16 responses to “The Worst Ecological and Humanitarian Disaster in History…and Nobody Seemed to Care.

  1. seanfox1

    It seems that this problem could also be helped by voting with our consumer dollar. Are there products that we should try and avoid to help stop the continuation of this disaster?


    • fipe0191

      Because palm oil is an incredibly high yield product, we should not stop purchasing it altogether. This would result in other oil products which use more land, to be produced. Purchasing products with the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) label can be a way to use your consumer dollar to make a difference.


  2. brittneymullane

    How do you think a disaster like this plays into certain brands marketing ingredients with “sustainable palm oil”? Do you think there are ways to produce “sustainable” palm oil? And who exactly will be paying the repercussions of this unfortunate event?


    • fipe0191

      The label RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) can be used to determine if the products one is purchasing are sustainable. However, this generally wont be enough, because environmental damage is still being done. However, if a large percentage of the population demands sustainable palm oil, brands may be more incentivized to participate, which is a start.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. kennedyroddy

    This post is very eye-opening and sad to read. It’s a shame that the media refrained from exposing such a catastrophic event. Since fingers are being pointed at different governments/companies for this event, I am curious to know who you think is most at fault for this ecological disaster? Furthermore, why do you think that this government or company would hold the most weight in their faults?


    • fipe0191

      It’s really hard to say who’s to blame, especially when there are so many players in this issue. Big palm oil companies can shoulder some of the blame, as they pay small-scale farmers to clear their land to make way for palm. However, without the high demand for the product, this wouldn’t be an issue, so I suppose some of the blame can be placed with the consumers.


  4. Do you know the number of hectares being cleared yearly in Indonesia, or if they are dangerously close to any population centers? It’s clear that the Indonesian government doesn’t have its priorities straight, but it would be interesting to see just how serious their “mistakes” are.


    • fipe0191

      I found that up to 10.8 million hectares are cleared every year and this number increases each year. My brother lives in Indonesia and he has told me stories, relayed from his friends in Kalimantan, Borneo. According to him the fires are very close to small villages and have caused many premature deaths among the populations there.


  5. miltonlockett

    This was a really interesting and eye-opening read. I think you made a valid point by asking who the blame should be placed on. Often times, developing countries in the midst of industrialization will be blamed for lack of environmental regulations, but it’s consumers who buy the products, and companies that outsource to cut costs that seem to drive these unsustainable practices. India and China especially, share many of the same air quality issues as Indonesia, as well as the same cheap labor and laid back environmental regulation practices. Do you think the disaster in Indonesia has the potential to happen in other countries facing rapid industrialization?


    • fipe0191

      I definitely see this as an issue that could affect many other nations. When you have a country like Indonesia, with lots of valuable natural resources, and corrupt political leaders, you have a recipe for exploitation.

      Palm Oil producers have recently set their eyes on African countries for their next production zone. There are many benefits of this operation, including alleviating poverty in countries like Libera and Sierra Leone, however, we should be wary of common drawbacks, which include environmental degradation and violation of human rights.


  6. loganbarrett28

    What do you think are the next steps for repairing the land and the communities surrounding the fires? Is it a job for Indonesian governments or will it require more broad international help?


    • fipe0191

      From what I have seen, the government is too tied up in Palm Oil production to make any real advancements. Neighboring countries, like Singapore, which has received very poor air quality due to the fires, could shoulder some of the burden, as the fires are affecting them as well.

      Other, international countries could also lend a hand as well. As I said in the article, countries with high interest in environmental standards could invest in land in Indonesia. One way that the United States could help is by offering technical and scientific support to advance the production technology and make it more sustainable.


  7. victoriallen

    This was a very eye opening article. I recently read about an oily-yeast alternative that could replace palm oil. Do you think the creation of these alternative products could help mitigate these harsh impacts of the palm oil industry in underdeveloped countries?


    • fipe0191

      Wow, what an interesting idea! I definitely think that the production of alternate products can help with this issue.

      I’m curious how efficient it’s production is, compared with Palm Oil, which is very high yield (the reason it’s so widely produced in Indonesia).


  8. It’s possible that the reason this didn’t get much media traction in the United States is because it happened in a country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

    There was similar event in Indonesia in 1997, also an El Nino year, that caused air pollution all over Southeast Asia. Normally, El Nino events are beneficial to Indonesia, but with widespread land use changes over the last two decades or so, they have exacerbated the fires.

    Also, because many places in Indonesia have unclear rules regarding land ownership, fire has been used as a “weapon” of sorts. Large operators will “burn out” small land holders and plant their own crops, thereby taking de facto ownership from the smaller operator.


  9. fipe0191

    Interesting that you bring up the issue of religion. I’m not exactly sure how that would affect the United States involvement in the issue, however the Islamic leaders in Indonesia are working towards a solution. The Koran states that one is not allowed to harm the environment, so Indonesia’s Islamic clerical body has issued a fatwa (a rule) against the starting of fires in the nation, stating that it goes against the Islamic religion to set fire to the land.


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