- A woman in a flowery print dress walks barefoot along a forest trail, carrying on her head a large sack of some kind of produce. She holds a loose part of her dress up to her nose and mouth to help her breathe through the smoke from the fires behind her.
- Firefighters stand watching impotently as massive flames rage across a forested landscape that won’t be forested for long.
- A mountainside burns.
- A satellite image shows what you take at first to be a large cloud formation. But this isn’t a rain cloud. It’s smoke from forest fires, drifting across the whole length of a country eight times the size of Britain.
This is happening now. It’s been happening for months, and it’s not clear who or what can stop it. It’s been slowed in the past few days by long-awaited heavy rain, but it hasn’t been entirely quenched and it will flare up again.
It’s been called the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century so far – quite some statement if you pause to consider Fukushima, the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill or the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Yet you can be forgiven if this is the first you’ve heard of it.
Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, we obsess over Downton Abbey, or the colour of Jeremy Corbyn’s Remembrance Day poppy.
Think “jungle” and it’s all about the next series of I’m A Celebrity, not the rapid disappearance of the trees.
Search for news from the devastated country itself and what you’ll find first is our biggest national papers drooling over Miss Indonesia’s dress. I’m sure she looks lovely, but shouldn’t she be wearing a breathing mask? They have become de rigueur – not to say essential – in many Indonesian cities.
Other photos show commuters driving to work with full headlight beams through thick, sepia-coloured smog that comes not from city pollution, but from the surrounding countryside. The haze has caused havoc, with sports events cancelled, air traffic halted, and schools closed not just in Indonesia itself but also in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
Half a million cases of respiratory infection since July have been attributed to the smoke. Toxic fumes have claimed at least a dozen lives in that time – probably many times that number.
Rahmi Carolina, a 22-year-old Indonesian student, says: “I’ve lived my entire life breathing thick smoke from annual forest and peatland fires. Every year tens of thousands die prematurely from respiratory illness. Every year I hear the government promise to solve this problem. But this year it’s worse than ever. Children are being evacuated. Some have even died from the smoke.”
It is ghastly. But it’s a long way – roughly a third of the globe – away from here. Why should we care?
Here are a couple of reasons.
The Indonesian inferno has just lately been filling the Earth’s atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than the whole of the gas-guzzling US economy. In the last three weeks it has added more to greenhouse gases than Germany does in a year. With climate change currently the number one threat to human life, and quality of life, worldwide, this should concern everyone.
If you have to put it in economic terms, the cash cost to Indonesia this year so far is conservatively estimated at £20billion. The damage is enough to threaten financial crisis in what is, in population terms, the world’s fourth largest country. Which could also have a global effect.
And if economics seems paltry by comparison with environmental meltdown (it is), it is also the root cause of the catastrophe. It’s not quite true that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Most are made worse by human behaviour, or lack of foresight. But this one is entirely man-made.
The fires may be fanned by El Nino, but they were started deliberately. They are the quickest and (if you discount the lost potential logging revenue) the cheapest way of clearing the forest for palm-oil production.
Within days of one big fire dying down recently, rows of newly planted palm saplings began appearing. Never mind the lost trees, the lost habitat, the burnt-up peat releasing its ancient carbon store into the atmosphere – there’s money to be made by someone.
And here’s another reason why this should matter to you and me. Because that palm oil is destined ultimately for our snack foods, our soaps, our cosmetics, our toothpaste, even our fuel tanks. It’s our consumer society, our buying choices, that ultimately fuel the destruction.
Another picture: an orangutan looks disarmingly human as it shields its eyes with a hand while peering at the smoking wreckage of jungle that used to be its home. And another: the blistered, hairless and slightly charred body of an orangutan scorched to death. These are heart-rending depictions of the damage human greed – allied to human ignorance – does to the natural world.
And it is not just the iconic orangutan that is threatened with extinction. Literally thousands of species are being burned up. If you don’t care much about rare plants, snakes and insects you’ve never heard of, what about tigers, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard, the proboscis monkey, the cute sun bear? All could soon be gone to make biscuits and margarine.