The eerie thing about fire in a peat swamp is that it is the very ground that is burning.

The fires currently destroying rainforest in Indonesia, and creating the infamous ‘haze’ that is blanketing neighbouring countries, are not the raging infernos, the mega fires, which threaten human life and do so much damage to property in Australia and the USA. In Indonesia whole trees are not bursting into flame, the canopy is not alight and there will be no pictures of sky-scraper high walls of fire. By comparison, swamp fires are rather more insidious; they creep rather than race, but the destruction is the same.

As the word ‘swamp’ suggests, this is land that should be waterlogged. ‘Peat’ itself is nothing more than ancient, decaying forest on the geological pathway to becoming coal. In other words, you have a highly flammable material for which the only safeguard against burning is saturation. Take away the water and the swamps will burn. Extensively. And that is what is happening right now in large parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

These forests are undoubted biological hotspots, but it is the orangutan who is perhaps their most well-known inhabitant. Found in only two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, and only on two islands in those countries, Sumatra and Borneo, the orangutan is Asia’s only great ape. They are the only red-haired ape. They are the only solitary ape. Orangutans are the most arboreal (tree living) of the great apes and they are the only apes – the only one of humankind’s closest relatives – who live in peat swamps.

As the swamps turn to ash, so does their chances of remaining a widespread and viable species. Orangutans have already lost 80 per cent of their habitat. The significance, the impact, of the loss of habitat on orangutans is nearing exponential: a one per cent loss of forest cover is twice as bad as a one per cent loss would have been previously, because previously there would have been twice as much forest cover. Their habitat is shrinking that rapidly.

The pressure on Indonesia’s forests is relentless and persists despite the government declaring a moratorium on deforestation. It persists despite the most valuable tree species being protected by domestic and international legislation such as CITES. It persists despite the designation of protected areas, tourism, and the very best efforts of local and foreign NGOs. Why? Not because these factors are inconsequential – far from it. The situation would be far worse were it not for governmental proclamations, charities, visitors and international concern.

The continued loss of rainforest in South East Asia generally – but in Indonesia especially – has two roots: firstly, the value of the habitat – whether in the worth of the trees themselves, what is contained within the soil, or simply as land on which to plant and grow things, be they subsistence crops or a commercial plantation. The second is global climate change.

NASA satellite image of Indonesian haze

NASA satellite image of South-East Asian haze from September 24, 2015.

If that last comment draws any howl of protest, this author for one does not care. You need not take my word for it: if the world’s climate was not changing, politicians and scientists would not be talking about the impact of a two-degree change, and the debate would not have subtly shifted from ‘avoidance’ to ‘mitigation’. Climate change is real, and it is happening now. If it was not – and of particular relevance to the current essay – the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) would have remained an unusual climatic phenomenon, of interest primarily to meteorologists and PhD students. That began to change when the frequency of El Niño increased from once every seven years, to five years and now possibly to three. The current, extended dry season in Indonesia is the result of an El Niño event. It is that which has caused the lack of rain which, in turn, has dried out the swamps.

No doubt there is still much we need to learn about the ENSO but, without over simplifying the very complex, we already know perhaps the most important indicator  (sea temperature), and we know the scale of impact (almost global once the negative effects on economies caused by knock-on effects such as Indonesia’s current haze are calculated). The temperature of the sea is changing and the economies of the world are getting no less interconnected. Few people would argue those as statements of fact. Hence, the take-home message is that, for both you and orangutans, an El Niño will never be good news. Yet, they are becoming more frequent.

Equally complex is the whole issue of land use which, by extension, means land cover. Mine for coal, iron ore or tin and you lose the rainforest. Give the land over to rubber or oil palms and you lose the rainforest. Even allow small-scale agriculture expand too far and you will lose the rainforest.

Oil palm plantations may have grabbed the headlines as the most prolific driver of deforestation in Indonesia but the truth is, from a tree’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter whether you are chopped down by a multinational or burnt out by an individual farmer. The end result is that the tree still dies. The loss of each tree is a loss to the orangutan and, by extension, a loss to us.

For a long time conservationists have recognised that, while mines or plantations might take bite sized chunks out of forest cover, small scale farmers still nibble away at it and the resulting deforestation is equally permanent. The difference is that palm oil, which ends up in Western supermarkets can be badgered by Western consumers. Conversely, Pak Jakir, who wants to plant an extra half hectare of rice to be bordered by rubber trees, escapes the glare of international attention. Or at least he did until he struck a match to clear the aforementioned half hectare.

A match becomes a fire and a fire becomes a hotspot. Hotspots can be detected by satellites and satellites can accurately predict an El Niño – precisely where and when that match should not be struck. There are many examples of how a series of targeted, pre-emptive educational messages, guidance and warnings has changed behaviour before law enforcement has to be brought into play. Think ‘slip, slop, slap’. Law enforcement has its place – offenders should be punished but the reality is simpler; the fires shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

For almost seven years, I lived with orangutans. I saw them, monitored them, counted the trees on which they and so much else depended and met with the people who impacted on their “world”. In particular, I talked to plantation managers and farmers who, depressingly welcomed a long dry season because it made their fires more effective. In October 2006, I never once saw blue sky because, for a whole month, we saw nothing but haze. When asked if I find it depressing that it has happened again, my answer is blunt. Forget depressing, what is happening in Indonesia is wrong on every level.