By: Our Correspondent

Indonesia’s fire season, in which hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary forest and peatland go up in smoke annually to be replaced by oil palm and paper plantations, is underway, with satellites recording hundreds of hot spots on Sumatra and Kalimantan.

However, according to the nonprofit environmental science and conservation website Mongabay, the fires, which began as early as mid-July, will be a “far cry from last year’s crisis,” which was the worst in recent history. Extreme heat and drought were triggered by El Niño, which increases ocean temperatures in the Southern Ocean, and which was exacerbated by climate change. La Niña, which usually follows El Niño as a cooler reversal, creates wetter-than-average conditions and, according to climate authorities, there is a 75 percent chance of perhaps a shorter dry season. Most of the country was relatively rainy going into the dry season, which began in June.

Last year’s fires have been called the biggest environmental disaster for the entire globe in 2016 – in a year of considerable environmental destruction – causing US$16 billion in damage to agriculture, forestry, transport, trade and tourism, as well as short-term school closures and health impacts, according to the World Bank, equivalent to 1.9 percent of GDP for 2015. Some 2 million hectares were scorched, causing an estimated 500,000 respiratory infections and thousands of premature deaths and contributing dramatically to the global rise in greenhouse gases. On 26 days in September and October, Indonesia’s daily carbon emissions exceeded those of the entire United States. 

As long ago as 2011, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a moratorium on burning. But that moratorium has largely been ignored.  Last year more than 130,000 hotspots consumed forest and peatland, sending plumes of smoke across the entire region, especially into Singapore, whose air quality was so bad that thousands were sent to hospitals and officials considered postponing the Singapore F1 Grand Prix race. Malaysia – the home of many of the offending companies through their Indonesian operations –and southern Thailand were also affected.

In September, with the haze near its peak, the Indonesian government joined 72 other countries in submitting a new climate action plan to the UN Framework on Climate Change, the multinational body that hammered out a dramatic new pact in Paris last December to seek to hold global warming to less than 2C by 2030. The Paris agreement will come into effect in 2020. The Indonesian plan called for yet another moratorium to drainage and development of peatland, a program to restore degraded peatlands and a prevention-focused approach to managing fire.

With Indonesia a signatory to the UN climate pact, President Joko Widodo has pledged tough measures to slow the fires, calling for enforcement of the guidelines on developing peatland and pledging to restore degraded forest, an effort that has met with some success internationally including in Brazil, Panama and Costa Rica.

This new commitment to relatively tougher action appeared in September last year when Indonesian police arrested seven executives of plantation companies including the head of a unit of the Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper, the country’s biggest pulp and paper producer, which has come under fire for years for its rapacious forest practices. Enraged Singapore authorities made APP the island republic’s biggest target for the illegal Indonesian forest fires. The National Environment Agency ordered APP to supply information on its subsidiaries and to detail what its suppliers were doing to fight fires. Others were officials on the Sinar Mas conglomerate, PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi, PT RickyKurniawan Kertpserda and PT Dyera Hutan Lestari.

APP has since agreed to a moratorium on further forest clearance after having denuded a huge area of Indonesia for plantations.  Golden Agri-Resources Ltd and Sime Darby, two of the biggest palm oil producers, have agreed to provide villagers within five kilometers from their boundaries with job opportunities and other assistance in the effort to reduce hotspots, Mongabay said. 

In other areas, provincial governments are beginning to train local people to set up patrols both to stop fires from starting and to put them out once they get started.  In South Sumatra, according to Reuters, they are receiving incentives such as farming equipment and fertilizer to raise productivity and deter them from slash-and-burn agriculture.

 Nonetheless, Mongabay, tracking the fires, found that Riau Province had 64 hotspots in early August. Another cluster showed up in North Sumatra and 43 were noted in Kalimantan.  It is obvious that Indonesia’s new commitment is going to have to be strengthened considerably before life gets appreciably better in Singapore, Malaysia and Phuket.