Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practiced for centuries throughout the tropics. By itself, it has done relatively little to destabilize the balance of nature in the rain forests, little more than, say, forest fires triggered by lightning in the northwestern United States. Small farmers generally control the scope of their fires carefully. But the Indonesian fire equation has changed dramatically in the past decade with the worldwide boom in tropical products such as palm oil.
The result, as seen in the 1997 round of fires, is one of the world's great environmental disasters. The land burned in Indonesia during that dry season has so far been estimated at 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. (This assessment will almost certainly grow; after the last great Indonesian drought, in 1982-83, it took experts three years to determine that 12,000 square miles had been torched.)
An estimated 20 million people were treated in the 1997 fires for illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and eye, skin, and cardiovascular diseases; a passenger plane crashed in poor visibility over Sumatra, killing 234; ships collided in the Strait of Malacca, killing dozens. Pollution cost regional economies billions in aborted tourist plans, canceled airline flights, lost workdays, medical bills, and ruined crops. Wildlife has suffered too. Every day orangutans fleeing the smoke ambled, disoriented, into a conservation reserve near Pangkalanbuun; they were weakened by infections and respiratory ailments.
Abdur Rani was far too occupied with the business of survival to worry about the effects of fire on wild animals. Bald, bare-chested, and barefoot, he wore only a pair of shorts, so thoroughly patched that I couldn't identify what the original color had been. He was in his element. I looked and felt like an alien. From the eyes down, my face was hidden behind a blue-rubber respirator sprouting twin disks covered in pink fuzz. Inside the mask, my face ran with perspiration, while the rest of me was slathered in a reddish paste of road dust, soot, and sweat. I was a walking amalgam of a chimney sweep and R2-D2.
What passed for air seemed more like oatmeal, thick with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other poisonous substances. I had no idea what the air pollution index, or API (coincidence: api is Indonesian for "fire"), was around Abdur's field outside the town of Pangkalanbuun. But I had already been in places where the official count was reported above 800, which doctors said was the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. By international standards an API of 100-200 is "unhealthy," 201-300 is "very unhealthy," 301-400 is "hazardous," 401-500 is "very hazardous," and anything higher is "dangerous." What we were inhaling, I guessed by the limited visibility and the tart taste on my tongue, must have been around seven or eight packs.