Indonesia Smokes Up its Neighbors

Despite numerous promises by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that it would stop, the burning of Indonesia’s rainforest is continuing, to the point where the haze is so thick that schools are closing, airplanes are being diverted and 60 percent of Malaysia is experiencing moderate pollution.

Indonesia’s immediate neighbors are expected to bring up the choking haze on Sept. 22 at a two-day meeting of environment ministers from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be held in Bangkok. The meeting is part of an annual series to discuss cross-boundary haze issues, so far to no avail.

In May, Yudhoyono signed a much-publicized two-year moratorium as part of a US$1 billion climate deal with Norway for emissions credits to cut global levels of greenhouse gases. However, Indonesia’s forestry ministry makes billions of dollars handing out permits to oil palm plantations to clear forest for oil palm production. The moratorium has been described as a disaster by environmentalists who say it is full of loopholes that favor the oil palm companies.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the country’s fourth largest export category, contributing 8.54 percent of export earnings to the country’s coffers. In addition, although agriculture provides only 15.3 percent of gross domestic product, it employs 38.3 percent of the population. Indonesia is also the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, much of it from illegal the logging of primary forest and burning the remains and the peatlands that undergird the forest.

The government has said it intends to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 26 percent against current levels, now producing something on the order of 2.05 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. Almost 80 percent of Indonesia’s current emissions stem from deforestation and land use change. Indonesia’s ability to control greenhouse gases is important because, according to the United Nations, 15-20 percent of the world’s gas reduction potential will come from forest and peat.

Behind the haze, however, is an even denser air of bureaucratic inertia and entrenched corruption that continues to thrwart the aims of the international compact known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). REDD had proposed including secondary forest as well as untouched primary forest, less and less of which continues to exist each year. Officials estimate that some 35 million hectares have already been degraded. The forestry ministry can’t agree on how much primary forest remains and is subject to REDD, saying 55 million hectares of primary forest are subject to the moratorium. The president’s office, however, says it should be 64 million hectares of primary forest and another 20 million hectares of peatlands.

Despite the complicated plans for REDD, the burning is continuing unabated. It appears likely to stay that way. A deeply detailed article in August by Reuters news service reporters described just one multimillion dollar project covering 90,000 hectares that had been intended as a showcase forest preservation project. It was near collapse, however, “a casualty of labyrinthine Indonesian bureaucracy, opaque laws and a secretive palm oil company” that wanted the deep peatland forest for development. After the expenditure of more than US$2 million in development costs, the project was cut in half by the forestry ministry, making it unviable.

The ministry, according to the article, earns $15 billion a year in land permit fees from investors. Those fees are regarded as a limitless source of corruption for forestry officials and politicians. Indonesia Corruption Watch, a private watchdog, was quoted by Reuters as saying illegal logging and violations in issuing forest use permits deliver ill-gotten gains estimated at Rp20 trillion ($2.3 billion) each year.

In the meantime, Indonesia’s neighbors are getting fed up with the haze, which occurs every year but seems worse in 2011. The Malaysian Environment Minister, Douglas Uggah Embas, last Friday sent a letter to his Indonesian counterpart, Gusti Muhammad Hatta, complaining about the hundreds of fires on Sumatra that have blanketed his country in smoke. Routinely school children are issued thousands of face masks in Johor and Negeri Sembilan provinces of Malaysia because of the smoke. Tourism in the resort city of Penang has often been badly affected by the haze.

Embas was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying Malaysia would push for the establishment of a regional fire-fighting squad to combat fires in ASEAN member countries. That pretty much comes down to Indonesia as the culprit.

Singapore has also expressed concern that haze from fires in Riau Province, across the Strait of Malacca, could affect the Formula 1 race and qualifying round scheduled from Sept. 23-25. There are fears that the racers, in cars which reach speeds over 300 kilometers per hour on Singapore’s streets at night, will be unable to see far enough ahead to negotiate the track.

Lion Air, now Indonesia’s biggest private airline, said it was diverting flights on the route between Jakarta and Jambi provincein central Sumatra. Officials said it was the first time this year that the airline had been forced to divert a flight because of thick haze. Indonesia was deploying three aircraft for a month to South Sumatra and Riau to attempt to sow clouds with silver iodide crystals in an attempt to induce rain. Rain has already started in West and Central Kalimantan provinces, on Borneo, so the rainmakers will skip those two areas.