Hundreds sickened in Indonesia’s Aceh as peat fires burn

 Hundreds sickened in Indonesia’s Aceh as peat fires burn

09 August 2016

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Indonesia —  Since August 3, peat fires in Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province have blanketed some areas in a choking haze, sickening hundreds of people and forcing at least one school to close.

Fires have appeared as far south as Subulussalam, which borders neighboring North Sumatra province, and as far north as Aceh Besar, the province’s northernmost tip.

In West Aceh, 150 military and police officers are helping the disaster mitigation agency fight the fires. Hundreds of people there have developed acute respiratory infections. Two students have had to be hospitalized.

“Our son began to have trouble breathing at school, they immediately rushed him to the local clinic,” said Darmawan, a relative of the boy.

“It’s been more than three days of smoke. The government distributed masks, but it’s not a solution.

“We’re tired — in the dry season we suffer from the haze; in the wet season the floods come.”

The fires are a result of slash-and-burn land clearing practices by local farmers and companies, according to Muhammad Nur, director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO.

“Every dry season, peatlands in West Aceh and Nagan Raya burn when they’re opened for oil palm plantations,” he said. “This occurs because the awareness of people and companies to manage plantations without causing negative effects is still weak.”

Indonesia’s vast peat swamp zones have been widely drained and dried so that oil palm and pulpwood trees can be planted, creating the conditions for the fires to spread out of control. Last year, agricultural fires in the Sumatra and Kalimantan regions were some of the worst ever. They burned an area larger than Macedonia, sickened half a million people, emitted more carbon than the entire EU during the same period, and, according to the World Bank, cost Indonesia $16 billion.

Husaini Syamaun, head of the Aceh Forestry Office, said the government has been socializing people not to use fire to clear land but not everybody follows the directive.

“At the moment there aren’t too many hotspots and they can still be controlled,” he said. “The fires haven’t spread to the forest.”

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