Starting Forest Fires Declared a Sin in Indonesia
Hoping to end the annual blazes enveloping Southeast Asia in choking haze, Indonesia’s Islamic Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa against intentionally starting forest fires.
The religious edict issued by the MUI declares that it is against Islamic law, or “haram,” for Muslims to burn forests or plantation lands. Issued in mid-September, the six-point fatwa states that burning forests to clear land for growing crops results in negative impacts on health and the environment.
Huzaemah Tahido Yanggo, head of MUI’s fatwa council, noted, “The Quran states that we are not allowed to harm the environment, and forest burning causes damage not only to the environment but also to people’s health — even neighbouring countries are complaining.”
Another member of the MUI council, Arwani Faisal, explained, “The MUI issued the fatwa after a lengthy deliberation process, which involved research, hearings with forestry and environmental experts, and field studies to collect inputs from locals to see the impact of forest fires.”
Ignoring Forest Fires is also Now Forbidden for Muslims
Indonesia’s new fatwa covers more than just intentionally starting fires. It also declares that taking benefits from forest burning is forbidden, as well as allowing, facilitating, or even ignoring intentionally set forest fires.
In fact, the fatwa declares that it is an Islamic obligation for Muslims to help prevent and/or put out forest fires.
The World’s Most Populous Muslim Country
Welcoming the fatwa against forest fires, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar conveyed her hopes that Indonesia’s Islamic clergy would spread the news throughout local communities. She stated, “The most important follow-up is communicating it to the public.”
Although Islamic fatwas have no real legal enforceability, they are often issued to encourage Muslims to take or avoid certain actions. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, with around 255 million inhabitants spread across 17,000 islands.
A previous fatwa issued by the MUI declared illegal hunting and trading of endangered animals is haram. Environmentalists hailed it as an innovative “first in the world” conservation intervention by the eco-friendly Muslims of Indonesia.
Clearing the land for pulpwood and palm oil plantations is a common cause of the annual blazes set during the region’s dry season. The blazes of 2015 were among the worst in memory, choking Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore in smog pollution for weeks at a time.
In addition to Islamic efforts, legal authorities in Indonesia are working on plans to discontinue land grants for new palm oil plantations. A governmental agency has also been established lately to oversee the restoration of millions of hectares of vulnerable carbon-rich peatlands.
Smoking Peatlands Caused Over 100,000 Premature Deaths in 2015
Drained peatlands are routinely burned to make way for new palm oil and pulpwood plantations. Smoldering for days to weeks at a time, peatlands release up to six times more smoke particles than other fires.
A shocking report by Harvard and Columbia University recently estimated the public health impacts of the deadly 2015 haze conditions in Southeast Asia.
Using satellite data and air pollution readings to calculate exposure to forest fire pollution, the authors estimated that smoke exposure contributed to over 100,000 premature deaths last year in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Calling for Forest and Peatland Protections in Indonesia
“The greatest impact from breathing particles from peat fire smoke falls on vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, babies, and children,” confirms Dr. Nursyam Ibrahim, Deputy of the West Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Medical Association.
“The Indonesian Medical Association in West Kalimantan calls on all parties to work together to prevent fires, especially in peatlands. What is at stake is a decline in the quality of Indonesia’s future human resources,” added Dr. Ibrahim.
“We are the doctors who care for the vulnerable groups exposed to toxic smoke in every medical center, and we know how awful it is to see the disease symptoms experienced by babies and children in our care.”
Yuyun Indradi, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia mourns, “More than a hundred thousand are estimated to have died prematurely last year.” Indradi continues, “Now fires are back again. If nothing changes, this killer haze will carry on taking a terrible toll, year after year. Industry and government must take real action to stop forest clearing and peatland drainage for plantations.”
Echoing the sentiments of Indonesia’s new Islamic fatwa against starting forest fires, Indradi claims, “Now that we know the scale of the death toll, failure to act immediately to stem the loss of life would be a crime.”
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