Indonesia’s Haze Disaster Could Trigger Reform

The decision by President Joko Widodo to cut short an important trip to the United States to return to Indonesia early to take personal charge of attempts to quell wildfires and peatland hot spots could – if you’re an optimist – be the inflection point in the country’s unenviable direction in destroying its forest cover and blanketing the entire region in smoke.

As a fleet of airplanes from as far away as the US, Australia and Russia dive-bomb the flames with water and retardant, the crisis has grown so great that the choking smoke could delay local elections slated for Dec. 9 in Indonesia and has generated a public health crisis Jokowi, as the president is known, aborted a groundbreaking trip to the US to meet President Barack Obama to discuss liberalizing trade and investment between the two countries, including an agreement to join the long-stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. One of the topics discussed with the US chief executive was Indonesia’s problems with greenhouse gas production.

The fires this year, spurred partly by the El Nino phenomenon, which has brought drought to Southeast Asia’s forests, are said to be the worst since at least 2006 when half a million hectares were cleared by burning, for the first time spurring a regional consensus that something has to be done to stop the forest degradation and clean the region’s skies during the burning season, which isn’t expected to end until sometime in December.

Large areas of forest in Kalimantan and Sumatra have been cleared by multinational oil palm and pulp and paper companies, to be replaced by plantations, the timber from the clearings shipped to China and Japan. Although such agribusiness interests as Asia Pulp and Paper have caught most of the blame, much of the fires are started by smallholders as well. Fires often destroy carbon sinks, peat bogs which are some of the world’s most critical repositories of carbon.

With hundreds of thousands of hectares on fire, this year Indonesia has contributed more greenhouse emissions to the global atmosphere than the entire US economy, according to the World Resources Institute. Data from the Global Fire Emissions Database showed that Indonesia’s carbon emissions have surpassed 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent.

“More conspicuously, the fires have triggered a spasm of air pollution that has mushroomed into a domestic health emergency and regional political crisis for Indonesia, with Indonesian companies seeing their products pulled from store shelves and facing multimillion dollar fines from the Singaporean government,” according to Rhett Butler, the founder of the Mongabay environmental NGO. “That reaction comes on top of a steep dive in the Indonesian rupiah and a commodity market rout that has hit some of the country’s biggest exports, including oil, coal, palm oil, and rubber. These are dark days – literally and figuratively – for Indonesia.”

Indonesia’s public health crisis and ecological calamity “presents Jokowi with an opportunity to finally enact reforms in the forest and plantation sectors that his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono failed to implement,” Butler wrote. “Jokowi has both the domestic support from citizens and business leaders to meaningfully adopt and implement policies that shift Indonesia away from practices that have wrecked the country’s forests and peatlands, heightened social conflict, eroded local food security, and made the country one of the world’s largest carbon polluters.” d hotspots.

Although rain fell in some haze-hit regions on Oct. 27 and Indonesia’s disaster management agency reported progress of sorts in preparing evacuations, the fires continue. The Indonesian navy has allocated 11 vessels, including a floating hospital, to be on standby to evacuate people from areas experiencing dangerous air quality. The minister in charge of Indonesia’s haze operation, Luhut Pandjaitan, joined Health Minister Nila Moelok and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya on a visit to Jambi on Tuesday, a Sumatran province that has seen air quality at dangerous levels.

According to Mongabay, internal government documents and on-the-record comments from senior minsters indicate Jokowi is readying what would effectively be an enhanced moratorium on all new peatland development in Indonesia. In response, one of Indonesia’s most-prominent NGOs is advocating an expansion of the archipelago’s community-forest program.

“We support the idea that land previously owned by companies should be taken back by the state and returned to the community in the event of fire,” Hadi Jatmiko, the director of the South Sumatra branch of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI), told Mongabay.

Community forest schemes in Indonesia are typically run through local cooperatives and offer residents right-of-use over a certain amount of land for a defined lease, often 30 years, according to the NGO. Local offices of the environment ministry will permit a proportion of land to be used for productive agriculture but the remainder must be restored or preserved.

In Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province, fishing has been severely disrupted with many fishermen leaving their boats on the semi-autonomous province’s beaches because of low visibility.

“Other people burn the forest but it’s us that suffer,” Zulkarnaini, skipper of the fishing vessel Idi Rayeuk, told Mongabay.

Visibility in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, was 800 meters on Monday, while visibility of 200 meters in the port town of Lhokseumawe, halfway on the northern coast road to Medan, was creating dangerous driving conditions on Monday evening. In addition to the toxic smoke blown over by easterly winds, disaster management officials in the province are battling floods and landslides caused by heavy rain. A 50-meter section of road disappeared into the Alas river in southeast Aceh while landslips blocked many other roads in the province.