Little smoke this haze season – but fires rage on in Indonesia

Kiki Taufik

JAKARTA (CNA) – Residents of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia may be breathing easier this year.

The haze that usually blankets our skies during these months has largely been absent. Thanks to the dry season being wetter than usual, smoke from the fires set by plantation companies in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan is less widespread.

But this doesn’t mean Indonesia’s forests aren’t burning. While satellite mapping indicates there are fewer fire hotspots across parts of the country, some 206,751 hectares of forests were torched from January to September 2020. Perhaps it’s a consolation that this is just a fraction of the 1.6 million hectares – an area 27 times the size of Greater Jakarta – that went up in flames in 2019.

Last year’s fires – the worst since 2015 – cost the Indonesian economy USD5.2 billion and enveloped the region in toxic smog.

DEFORESTATION SPREADING EASTWARDS

Using fire to clear forests and peatland (wetlands critical for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) for growing oil palm and pulpwood is illegal in Indonesia.

Yet plantation companies – many with parent companies reportedly in Malaysia and Singapore – continue to burn the country’s remaining forest with impunity.

According to Greenpeace’s annual report released on October 22, an area greater than the size of the Netherlands was burned in Indonesia from 2015 to 2019. Large tracts of land have become increasingly scarce in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Due to limits on deforestation, peatland conversion and expropriation of indigenous community land, plantation companies have set their sights on Papua, Indonesia’s largest and easternmost province. Papua has 50 per cent of Indonesia’s biodiversity and is home to thousands of unique endemic species. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, in 2018, 34.3 million hectares, or 83 per cent of Papua’s total land area remained as primary forest. But it is fast disappearing. It was only when I flew over the Papuan forests in 2013 that I truly grasped the scale and pace of deforestation in Indonesia. We started the trip in Jayapura with the objective of gathering evidence of fires in palm and pulp concessions in the south of the island.

Fires raging in Jambi, Indonesia on September 25, 2019. PHOTO: KIKI SIREGAR

For hundreds of kilometres, lush vegetation stretched out as far as the eye could see. But as we flew southwards towards Boven Digoel, we spotted columns of smoke rising up from patches of scorched land.

The burning was happening right below our feet, and continues to this day. About 155 fire alerts were detected in Papua alone in the last three months, based on satellite-captured imaging.

DESTRUCTION DESPITE COVID-19

A first look at the data shows that 2020 has seen a significant tree cover loss in Papua compared to earlier years. Much of this destruction has taken place behind the veil of COVID-19 restrictions.

Travel bans have prevented effective monitoring of illegal land clearance operations. Law enforcement to tackle violations regarding environment degradation has been thin on the ground.

This has left plantation companies free to expand their concessions – despite a government moratorium on clearing forests and peatlands for plantations or logging.

On top of travel restrictions, social distancing and budget cuts have hampered this year’s fire prevention efforts. In some areas of the country, funding has been halved for forest patrols conducted by the police, army, fire brigade and civilian groups.

Environmental groups argue that Indonesia’s forest fires are a man-made crisis driven largely by corporate greed and weak law enforcement. In Indonesia, stronger environmental safeguards are needed together with greater accountability when companies raze forests and drain peatlands, leaving them vulnerable to fires.

LOOSENING OF PROTECTIONS

Legislation designed to boost the country’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has recently been rushed through Parliament.

The Omnibus Bill, which has been passed by Parliament on October 5, will relax laws and eliminate environmental regulations to increase foreign investment and fast-track the expansion of palm oil and pulpwood concessions, mining and infrastructure projects.

The bill scrapes the requirement for all Indonesian regions to maintain 30 per cent of their territory as forest area. It also removes threats of sanctions against businesses that do not conduct environmental impact assessments, as well as a liability clause that allows the government to sue plantation companies for fires that started on their concessions.

These deregulations undermine the government’s commitment towards reducing carbon emissions by 29 per cent to 41 per cent by 2030. Indonesia’s land use sector already contributes an immense amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the bill reinforces a policy shift towards the expansion of the oil palm sector driven by President Joko Widodo’s ambition to reach self-sufficiency in biofuel. The conversion of forests to farmland to accommodate the increase in biofuel blends will further accelerate deforestation, ultimately increasing the amount of gas emissions from land conversion and forest fires.

HUMAN IMPACT

The destruction of Indonesia’s forests and peatland represents not only an ecological disaster but a silent public health emergency. Greenpeace has documented the staggering health impacts of toxic smoke inhalation from the recurrent annual fires, which have contributed to a surge in long-term chronic heart and lung problems, killing an estimated 110,000 people every year across the region.

The spread of COVID-19 will only aggravate this situation. Studies carried out by Harvard University in April 2020, and another covering all 355 municipalities of the Netherlands released in June 2020, found that a small increase in air pollution was linked to a measurable increase in COVID-19 death rates.

Indonesia’s forests and peatlands maintain vital ecosystems that support nature and people’s livelihoods and food security. From a climate perspective, there is broad scientific agreement that restoring degraded forests and expanding the planet’s forest area is by far the most promising method of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

To tackle deforestation and fires, we first need to know who controls the land where the destruction is happening.

President Jokowi’s One Map project – slated for completion by the end of 2020 – strives to put accurate information on land concessions in the public domain to resolve disputes arising from inconsistent mapping data.

However, critics point out how One Map has been developed behind closed doors with government data. It’s thus unclear if the project will honour the land rights of smallholder farmers.

Greater transparency is essential. The Indonesian government could require plantation companies to provide credible data on who ultimately owns or controls them and the exact locations of their landholdings.

Similarly, downstream companies could make provision of concession maps and control or ownership data a precondition of the purchase of commodities from producers or traders.

That governments and companies have failed to take these steps makes clear that their priority is ease of commodity trade, regardless of climate and environmental impacts.