Fire & Haze

The Worst Forest Fires

The Jakarta Post | Editorial | November 01 2015
The forest and peatland fires and smog, billed the worst in Indonesian history, still dominated media headlines this week, with thousands of hot spots covering Sumatra and Kalimantan.

At least 19 people in Sumatra and Kalimantan have died, and thousands, mostly children, have been hospitalized because of severe respiratory illnesses caused by the haze. According to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), the ongoing haze crisis has resulted in more than 500,000 people in six provinces — Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan —suffering from acute respiratory infections.

As evidence indicates that most hot spots are related to oil palm and pulp wood plantations, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has instructed the Forestry and Environment Ministry to stop issuing new permits for peatland cultivation for monoculture, restore damaged peatland and review all peatland licenses that have been issued.

Put bluntly, companies can no longer convert active forests and deep peat or any peat area into monoculture plantations, such as acacia for pulp and oil palm plantations.

Recent research by forest scientists at the Bogor, West Java-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that the main cause of haze in Riau came from dry and deforested peatland, and not just from the slashing-and-burning of forested areas, as commonly thought. The research found that peat swamps in their natural state are resistant to fire because they are wet underground, but they can be highly flammable when they dry out and are degraded.

Research by Greenpeace has discovered that left in its natural waterlogged condition, peatland rarely burns. An untouched tropical rain forest is similarly fire-resistant. However, two decades of forest and peatland destruction by the plantation sector has made parts of Indonesia into giant tinderboxes.

Peatland soil stores a massive amount of carbon. When peatland is cleared and drained for a plantation, it degrades and the carbon it stores starts to be released into the atmosphere as CO2 emissions. If peat soil catches fire, it can smolder below the soil surface and be exceedingly difficult to extinguish.

The reason people burn land is quite simple. It is a relatively easy, quick and incredibly effective way to remove unwanted vegetation. Land is cleared almost immediately and the time it takes for the ground and heavier fuels to cool is relatively short.

The fire problem is further exacerbated by a lack of centralized coordination, planning, control, containment or monitoring in the region. An absence of active and coordinated fire management and surveillance is the key reason why people and companies are able to burn as much forested land to remove unwanted vegetation.

Greenpeace studies show that forest fires are a threat to the health of millions. Smoke from the fires kills an estimated 110,000 people every year across Southeast Asia, mostly as a result of heart and lung problems, and weakens newborn babies.

The impact is even worse during El Niño years such as 2015, which the Australian Bureau of Meteorology estimates is turning out to be the worst El Niño in 20 years .

Indonesia’s annual forest and peatland fires are a man-made crisis, with devastating health impacts for Indonesia and its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as the global climate. Operating under weak and poorly enforced laws, plantation companies and other actors continue their reckless expansion — clearing forests and draining wet, carbon-rich peatland — that lays the foundations for these fires. The unwillingness of the government to put concession maps in the public domain makes it harder to identify those responsible for the fires or the destructive practices that cause them.

The destruction continues despite commitments from many of the larger traders and producers of Indonesian commodities, such as palm oil and pulp, to end deforestation and peatland degradation and impose strict no fire policies. Indeed, many fires are reportedly burning within the concessions of companies that have “no deforestation” policies.

Ultimately, these fires will continue until plantation companies stop deforestation and start restoring forests and peatland. Commodity traders and their customers must work together to deliver an industry-wide ban on trade with companies that continue to destroy forests and peatland, eliminating the economic incentive for forest clearance.

Companies that use, trade and produce Indonesian commodities must support massive programs to restore and protect forest and peatland and stop the fires before they start.

The government must support these initiatives, publish concession maps to allow those responsible for fires to be held to account and reform the plantation sector to halt the destruction and degradation of Indonesia’s forests and peatland.

The heavy haze should be the momentum for the government, the people and the business community to take firm and bold measures to prevent a similar disaster. Failure to do so will embolden the campaign launched in Singapore and Malaysia to encourage consumers to boycott Indonesian products such as pulp, paper and those containing palm oil. We will also become the ugly guy during the climate change summit in Paris in December.

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