By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

Over the past two decades, forest fires have become a seasonal phenomenon in Indonesia, destroying some of the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet and blanketing Southeast Asia with a choking haze as smallholders and large corporations both have put millions of hectares of old-growth to the torch.

The fires, to clear land for plantations of palm oil, which has become one of the world’s most widely-used oils, have catapulted lightly-industrialized Indonesia into the top five countries in the world producing greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change, destroying a distressing and growing share of one of the world’s most important so-called green lungs. 

Although the peak of the dry season usually falls in August and September, it actually begins from late January to March, interspersed by rains through the middle of the year. Fire and haze actually broke out as early as January in 2017 in Riau, the Sumatran province directly across the Malacca Strait from Singapore. 

What Happened Last Year

When compared to Indonesia’s devastating fires in 2015, which caused diplomatic tension with neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, both of which were covered by smoky haze for weeks, the number of hot spots in 2017 has decreased sharply. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is a Forestry Faculty graduate, is considered relatively successful in his administration’s efforts to control widespread fires during last year’s dry period.

Based on satellite monitoring reviewed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, from 2016 to 2017, the number of hotspots decreased by 32.6 percent, from 3,563 to 2,400. The area of burned forest and peatlands in 2017 amounted to 124,983 hectares. This figure shows a significant improvement compared to 438,360 hectares in 2016 and a devastating 2.61 million hectares of forest that disappeared in 2015.

The Changing Trend

However, it has not been all good news in 2017. Last year, hotspots started appearing in regions with no history of major land and forest fire, like East Nusa Tenggara in the Lesser Sunda islands, Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra on the Andaman Sea, and Bangka Belitung, an island chain off south Sumatra. According to data collected by the Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) 35 hotspots were detected in Aceh, spreading in five districts in West Aceh, a total of 64 hectares of forest and peatlands were gone.

This situation is worrying because these new regions haven’t yet implemented special units to deal with forest fires. Unlike the regions such as Riau, South Sumatra, and West Borneo that are known susceptible to forest fire disasters, the new regions have not been prepared to handle such cases.

These regions lack alert city special forces, ready firefighting facilities and available helicopters to drop water bombs on the fires. The government has been lagging in precautions to announce early emergency status and other measures to prevent hot spots from expanding.

Manmade Disasters

Although forest fires occur in different provinces of Indonesia, across seas and mountains, the underlying cause is the same. Fire has, in the past 20 years, been used by both small and large-scale farming to clear land. Land clearing by slash and burn has become the new normal, with hundreds of unregistered palm oil companies conducting practices, making it more dangerous.

Peatland, a precious carbon sink built up by millions of years in much of the damaged areas, is highly combustible. Add dry weather and strong winds, nearly unstoppable flames lead to massive forest fires if left untamed.

In a country that is prone to disasters from flooding, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes, and tsunamis, Indonesia’s Emergency Events Database recorded that these fires are the number-one cause of economic damage that Indonesia has suffered. The biggest financial loss from all disasters occurred in the country from 1995 to 2016 comes from forest and peat fires, accounting for 37 percent of all such losses.

Severe Impacts

As Indonesia has become the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, apparently there is a high price to be paid in term of illegal and extensive deforestation. During 2017, 124,983 hectares burned, among which the worst occurred in West Kalimantan (6,992 hectares), Riau (6,841 hectares) and South Sumatra (3,007 hectares). Fires also occur annually in nature preserves such as Mount Rinjani National Park in Lombok and Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau, which have endangered the survival of exotic Indonesian animals, among them the orangutan population.

Health risk is also a pivotal issue. As prolonged thick haze has clouded in the air for months, dangerous substances were released, exposing 69 million local residents to poor air quality and causing 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections.

In 2015, Co2 emissions from forest fires in Indonesia alone were comparable to the total emissions the United Kingdom produces in a year. Two years ago fires caused  US$16.1 billion in losses to the Indonesian economy The hazardous haze also increased the level of fine particles in the air, transforming day into night as visibility drops very low.

What Needs to Be Done

Learning from previous experience, there is no excuses for this manmade disaster to be an annual event. It has to end. Big or small companies, practicing “slash and burn” must be held accountable for their thoughtless actions.  To his credit, as Asia Sentinel reported, Jokowi’s administration on Dec. 26 launched an ambitious US$2.73 billion plan designed to cut land and forest fire hotspots by nearly half, in part by protecting peat forests, aiming to ensure that 121,000 sq. km. of land, a fifth of it peat forest, will be fire-free by 2019.

Under the new plan, revealed by the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy, the government aims to tackle the fires through a two-pronged approach. First is ensuring that 24,000 sq. km of degraded peat areas slated to be restored by Indonesia’s peatland restoration agency (BRG) are not burned. Second is boosting prevention efforts in 731 villages in Sumatra and Kalimantan that have been identified as being historically prone to fires.

In all, the plan calls for the protection of 121,000 sq. km. of land, which, if kept free of fire by 2019, would reduce the anticipated number of hotspots by 49 percent compared to business-as-usual levels.

Beyond that, however, the society itself needs assistance, training and incentives for environmentally responsible practices of forest management.  For disaster-prone areas, the establishment of emergency alert status should not be delayed. New regions that have never experienced fires need to staff up to anticipate illegal practices.

In addition to thousands of volunteers and personnel from the police, military forces, the government itself has deployed 23 helicopters and three special aircraft to make artificial rain by dropping water bombs at points where the fires were worst. Last year, 71.9 million liters of water and 162 tonnes of salt were sown to make this synthetic rain.

However, these facilities are limited in the vastness of Indonesia’s forests and the national government is vulnerable. Local governments must be funded and trained to take up the slack in new areas that face the potential of new, illegal plantations.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian freelance writer. They are regular contributors to Asia Sentinel.