It is fire season again in Indonesia, with the annual burning of rainforests to clear agricultural land bringing choking haze to neighboring countries Singapore and Malaysia and raising the specter of adding millions of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Non-clearing pacts with major oil palm and paper pulp suppliers including Asia Pulp & Paper appear to have done little to a cut into the problem. Jakarta under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2011 introduced a forestry moratorium, which was renewed in May by President Joko Widodo. At that time, it was hoped that it would put a hold on new concessions for activities such as logging and plantations.
The moratorium appears to have done at least some good. Annual tree cover loss declined in 2013 to the lowest point in almost a decade, according to new high-resolution satellite-based maps released by Global Forest Watch, a partnership led by the World Resources Institute. From 2011-2013 Indonesia’s average tree cover loss was 1.6 million hectares per year, indicating the past decade’s surge in tree cover loss may have now plateaued.
It obviously hasn’t been enough. According to another new study by Nature and Climate Change, “Thirty-eight percent of all tree cover loss in Indonesia occurred in primary forests, the most pristine and biodiverse of all the country’s forest land. Notably, 40 percent of this loss [within official forest areas] happened within zones that restrict forest clearing, such as national parks, protected forests, and even areas protected under the moratorium.”
With the El Nino periodic weather phenomenon expected to extend the traditional dry period from May into September, the haze is expected to be worse than usual. The ASEAN Haze Monitoring System has detected 4,763 hotspots, indicating wildfires, across Indonesia between Jan. 1 and July 23, the vast majority of them in the Kelantan rainforest on the island of Borneo. A depressing example of Indonesia’s attitude toward chocking its neighbors was given in March by Jusuf Kalla, the country’s vice president, who was quoted in the Jakarta Post as saying: “For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.”
In 2013, Singapore suffered its worst air pollution in 16 years, impelling Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to say a haze-free ASEAN by 2020 – a goal unlikely to be met in any case – wasn’t good enough for Singaporeans, who have already suffered too long.
Balakrisnan made the comments at the 17th meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on transboundary haze pollution, an indication of how long Singapore has been complaining about the air Indonesia sends across the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.
According to the World Resources Institute in November 2014, Indonesia ranked sixth among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases – despite the fact that it has almost no industrial plant, unlike such industrial powerhouses as China (1), the United States (2) and the European Union (3). But in intensity of emissions, it ranked third.
The United Nations estimates the conversion of forests to other land uses is responsible for nearly 20 percent of net global carbon emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector. A World Bank – UK aid report in 2007 found that Indonesian forest fires were responsible for about a third of global emissions from tropical deforestation.
Ariana Alisjahbana, Fred Stolle and Belinda Margono, writing on the World Resources Institute website, say that “Indonesia is losing primary forest at a staggering rate. The country now has the highest rate of loss in tropical primary forests in the world, overtaking Brazil. Primary tropical forests are the most carbon- and biodiversity-rich type of forest ecosystem.
From 2000 to 2012, Indonesia lost more than 6 million hectares of primary forest – an area half the size of England, according to their report. In recent years, Indonesia even surpassed Brazil in deforestation, losing almost twice as much primary forest as Brazil in 2012. Perhaps most worryingly, the new data shows that the problem is getting worse. Indonesia’s primary forest loss is increasing by an average of 47,600 hectares every year, with an increasing proportion of loss occurring in wetlands, which often results in massive greenhouse gas emissions from peat soils.
“A storm of outside pressure has gathered around Indonesia from its neighbors and the wider international community to stop the haze and help combat climate change,” according to an Aug. 18 report on the Mongabay website. “Nevertheless, the international impetus on Indonesia to stem the burning of its forests has not abated.
“The damage from the fires, of course, is not all about regional haze and climate change. The clearing of rainforests is also destroying invaluable reserves of plants and animals. Indonesia is ranked as the fourth most biologically diverse country in the world. The protection of these forests from burning would consequently help safeguard their unique inhabitants, such as the orangutan. The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is listed by the IUCN as Endangered and the Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii) Critically Endangered, due primarily to destruction of their forest habitat.
As in many cases, trying to find an equitable path through the sometimes-uneasy balance between environmental protection and development is not easy. Many forests have been felled and burned in Indonesia to open up land for palm oil plantations and to produce paper and wood products for an ever-expanding global market.
Six years ago, Indonesia enacted a moratorium banning the establishment of new commodity concessions such as oil palm and wood fiber plantations in primary forest. However, some are concerned the moratorium doesn’t go far enough, with exemptions when it comes to secondary forest and “national development” activities.
A real challenge in solving Indonesia’s regional haze-climate change conundrum lies in finding ways to avoid rainforest destruction while safeguarding the livelihoods of its citizens. At the most basic level, this involves generating profits for Indonesian people to make it worth their while not to burn forests.