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Drought Conditions In Indonesia Hinder Efforts To Put Out Wildfire

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Every year in Indonesia, paper, pulp and palm oil companies clear land in rain forests by lighting fires, including slash-and-burn techniques. And every year, the smoke blankets huge areas of Southeast Asia. This year, a prolonged drought may be making the fires even worse, and Indonesia's neighbors are demanding something be done. We're joined on the line by the BBC's Rebecca Henschke. She's in the midst of fires in the worst-affected area on the island of Borneo. Good morning.

REBECCA HENSCHKE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather you're on a palm oil plantation. That's one of the industries that actually do a lot of this burning. Paint us a picture of the fire and the haze. I mean, can you even breathe?

HENSCHKE: I'm standing looking over right next to burning peatland, so it's very thick soil. Actually, the fire you can't see because it's burning underground and burning up to three meters underground. It produces an incredible amount of thick smog. So I'm wearing a heavy duty mask to try and stop some of those particles going in because the air is extremely hazardous.

MONTAGNE: And the thing is, this is not just Indonesia's problem because that smoke and haze has moved over to neighboring countries.

HENSCHKE: It has. That's right. It's blanketed most of Singapore for months, also Malaysia, and it's got up as far as Thailand. And it's meant that people there have been sick, they've had to stay indoors. Also, schools in Malaysia have been closed to try and protect children there from the effects of the toxic smoke that they're breathing in.

MONTAGNE: Why does the Indonesian government allow companies like palm oil makers and other companies to set these fires?

HENSCHKE: They don't allow them. It's illegal in Indonesia, but the problem is that they have very good laws on paper, but on the ground, law enforcement is extremely poor. There's high corruption, so companies can bribe lower officials down the chain to be able to clear land. Many of the land that's being cleared by fire is some of the most biodiverse forest in the world.

MONTAGNE: Is the Indonesian government responding this year to pressure from at least other countries because of this?

HENSCHKE: There is response. I mean, President Joko Widodo has said he's serious about fixing it. He says that he needs time. This is not just about firefighting because peat fire is extremely hard to put out, so it has to be about prevention, and it has to be about restoration of peatland and also about enforcing laws that are already in place to try and protect these extremely important forests.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

HENSCHKE: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And we've been speaking with BBC's Rebecca Henschke who is covering the fires in Indonesia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.