Fires In Indonesia: NASA Satellite Image Exposes Palm Oil Companies’ ‘Illegal’ Slash-And-Burn Practice

By Philip Ross on August 28, 2013 4:09 PM EDT

nasa satellite image of indonesian fires
Fires in Indonesia dot the sovereign state’s mainland. The fires are reportedly intentional and are meant to clear land for growing palm oil. This image captured Tuesday by NASA’s Terra satellite shows areas actively burning. (Photo: NASA)
fires in indonesia
Trees are burned to make way for palm oil in Indonesia's Riau province in June. The illegal burning of forests on Indonesia's Sumatra island to clear space for palm oil plantations is a chronic problem during the June-September dry season. (Photo: Reuters)

Indonesia is on fire, and it's no accident. According to AP, the wildfires were intentionally started to clear land for companies to grow palm oil, the most traded vegetable oil commodity in the world and a common cooking ingredient in Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of South America.

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"Widespread, illegal burning to clear rainforests and peatlands for palm oil and pulp and paper plantation expansion is unfortunately a well-established yearly ritual in Sumatra," Laurel Sutherlin, communications director for the Rainforest Action Network, said in an email to the Huffington Post.

This kind of "slash-and-burn" agriculture has resulted in clouds of smog that blanket parts of the archipelago, and have even hamper flight operations. The Calgary Herald reports that as of Tuesday, satellite images of Indonesia's island of Sumatra have identified a total of 264 "hotspots" where small blazes are burning.

In some areas, visibility has been reduced to just 50 yards. This has caused flights to be delayed at the airport in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, a province on the island of Sumatra.

And it's not just Indonesia that suffers from debilitating smog levels caused by illegal fires. Earlier this month, the neighboring city-state of Singapore reported a record high of 401 on its pollution index, meaning this could be a life-threatening situation for sick and elderly people.

According to International Business Times, Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85 percent of the world's supply of palm oil. That amounts to over 45 million tons of palm oil ever year. Palm oil is used in a number of products, from soap and shampoo to chocolate and ice cream.

But unsustainable palm oil practices, like the fires in Indonesia, are destroying valuable rain forests. Other practices of clearing land, like using heavy machinery, are better for the environment, but would also raise the price of palm oil by about 1 percent, according to International Business Times.

Read more from iScience Times:

19 Firefighters Killed In Arizona Wildfire: 6,000 Acre Blaze Claims Elite 'Hotshots' Crew [VIDEO, REPORT]

3,000 Evacuated As Calif. Wildfire Rages On: Can Los Angeles Fire Be Contained?

California Wildfires: How Is NASA Using Satellites to Fight Fires From Outer Space?

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