Indonesia is seeing a record-breaking number of fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra. What makes Indonesia such a hotbed for blazes, and how can this annual problem be resolved?
Sumatra’s recurring forest fires in 2015 are taking their toll on people’s lives, the local ecology and the Indonesian economy. The resulting haze is not exclusive to Indonesians in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but also paralyses the archipelago’s closest neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia.
In the past several weeks, Indonesia’s air quality index has surged to more than six times the level it deems unhealthy for humans. According to complaints filed by locals to the National Human Rights Commission, the haze has caused 43,386 people in Riau and 42,887 in Samarinda to suffer from acute respiratory infections, of which two children in Jambi have died.
On September 14, Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index clocked a very unhealthy reading. In Malaysia, the haze has been prolonged over several weeks, impacting the livelihood of citizens, with schools closed and flights delayed. Wilson Beh, a Malaysian citizen told Indonesia Expat, “I feel frustrated with the haze. I hope that the Indonesian Government can take effective action against the culprits, either plantation companies or individuals, so combating haze is not a repetitive annual promise.”
The emissions coming from peatland and forest fires are daunting. 2012 data from the National Council on Climate Change shows the highest share of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions – up to 76 percent – are from deforestation, forest fires, and carbon-rich peat degradation.
This makes Indonesia the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
As a consequence, not only has Indonesia lost tremendous treasure troves of biodiversity, but the haze also represents a step back from the Government’s voluntary commitment to a minimum 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Financially speaking, the chief of information and public relations at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency estimated the haze crisis this year could reach beyond the Rp.20 trillion (US$1.37 billion) that Indonesia incurred in 2014.
Notwithstanding the fact that drifting haze has occurred 12 times since the 1970s, there has been no significant effort to put an end to the irresponsible land use which leads to fires. Deep-seated economic interests in smouldering techniques, compounded by minimum law enforcement, are the key factors.
Andika Putraditama, outreach officer at the World Resources Institute (WRI), explains the fires’ triggers. “Unlike in Australia or California, the fires in Indonesia are mostly intentional and man-made, due to the high demand for commodities such as palm oil,” says Putraditama. “Fire is the easiest and cheapest way to clear land of shrubs or logs before planting crops. Mechanical clearing is expensive and takes longer.”
He adds, “The fires are happening in and around peatland because the nature of drained and dry peatlands are very easily burned and very hard to be suppressed [sic].”
Who are the culprits?
Although the driving factors are quite obvious and the police have detained seven people whose companies are allegedly connected to the fires, there is ambiguity on where the responsibility truly lies.
Non-governmental organisations tend to blame companies, on the grounds that the scale of the fires can’t be generated by small farming practices. However, executive director of the Association of Indonesian Timber Concession Holders, Purwadi Soeprihanto, tells Indonesia Expat that sometimes fires are started outside of companies’ concessions. Even if they were started inside, he avers there is the possibility that the area was entered illegally and ‘slash-and-burn’ techniques were carried out as a shortcut to clear the land.
Putraditama suggests accurate, updated and complete concessions data will help sort out the problem.
“The concession data we have on our platform Global Forests Watch Fires comes from the Gove
rnment, and despite its legitimacy, is not the best dataset. A lot of commercial activity such as small-scale oil palm, and sometimes big timber concessions, are not within the dataset. They could be unregistered or simply illegal activities. This is the first problem. The second is fire alerts data. WRI is still struggling to come up with a solid methodology to track the pattern of fire occurrences to detect where the fire started – inside or outside of concessions.”
Saving both economy and environment
Despite being home to the world’s third-largest tropical forest area, Indonesia ranks second in the world for tropical deforestation. Where have the trees gone? Apparently, between 1990 and 2010, almost 90 percent of oil palm plantations in Kalimantan came at the expense of forest cover. Considering the ecological impact, should palm oil be stopped altogether?
Indonesia is the world’s number one producer and exporter of palm oil, accounting for 50 percent of the world’s total export. Palm oil is Indonesia’s top-exported commodity, with 18.97 percent of 2011’s total export. So, how can the economy and the environment be reconciled?
“One of the projects WRI does is to prevent deforestation by diverting oil palm plantations away from forests and on to already-degraded areas,” says Putraditama. “We need to realise this crisis occurred due to bad land-use management in Indonesia. Highly sensitive ecosystems such as peatland and high-conservation forests should not be given out to companies to be converted into large-scale monoculture plantation such as palm oil. The significant change of the landscape has dramatically increased the risk of fire occurrences in Indonesia.”
He also added that the Government and private sectors had to step up regulations and standards for a stricter environmental safeguard. Ideally, this would make production compliant to sustainable and responsible business practices.
Indonesia must act on this issue urgently before it reoccurs in 2016, not least because such unsustainable business practices make the archipelago’s products less competitive, especially to increasingly environment-conscious consumers. Some products are even blacklisted in other countries, such as the United States and members of the European Union, which try to limit the carbon footprint of certain products. As such, continuous irresponsible slash-and-burn practices might result in Indonesia losing market share in both crucial economies.