While the eyes of the world have been fixed in horror on the Amazonian forest fires, the rainforests of Indonesia on the other side of the planet are now also in flames.
In the first eight months of 2019, over 300,000 hectares of land were burned by fire, and the past week has seen a surge in fire alerts across the entire Indonesian archipelago. According to Global Forest Watch, the 8,903 fire alerts is more than twice the average number for this time of year.
What makes the situation more complex is that 43 percent of the fires are fuelled by peatlands. These carbon-rich swamps become highly combustible when drained of water for conversion into commercial plantations, such as oil palm. Forming over a millenia, the ancient carbon locked in their dense layers is released on burning, causing CO2 levels to rise and contributing to global heating.
That explains why fires in equatorial Asia, an area that includes countries like Indonesia with large peatland forests, contribute 8 percent of global carbon emissions and 23 percent of methane emissions despite only accounting for 0.6 percent of the world’s burned area.
Indonesian peatlands are also among some of the most unique ecosystems on the planet, home to endangered species such as the endemic Sumatran orangutans, which is cited as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List .
Peatland fires can smolder underground for months, making them almost impossible to detect and extinguish. Their wet susbstance means significantly more smoke is created in comparison to other forest fires.
A noxious haze caused by the current fires has raised alarms across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. So far, more than 300,000 people have succombed to acute respiratory infections in the Indonesian provinces of Riau and Jambi alone. Schools have been forced to close in both Indonesia and Malaysia, while planes have been grounded due to poor visibility.
The growing severity of Indonesia’s wildfires, which are not part of Indonesia’s natural ecosystem, have drawn comparisons to 2015 when 2.6 million hectares of forest burned. The equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere, beating the entire America economy at their daily emissions expenditure. The World Bank estimated that the cost to the Indonesian economy of the 2015 fires was USD 16.2 billion.
Nevertheless, some people benefit from the fires – so who is responsible?
Economically rational, ecologically rash
Herry Purnomo is a research scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Bogor, Indonesia who has been studying the annual dry season forest fires for 20 years.
“The fires are mostly caused by human activity,” Purnomo tells Forests News. “Global warming is making the planet drier, which helps fires spread and keep burning, but climate change does not cause fires to start.”
Purnomo’s research has identified three categories of people who set fires: farmers, local elites, and large corporations.
“If you are poor, then using fire to clear land for agricultural use is economically rational,” Purnomo says. “We calculated that it costs around USD 300 per hectare to clear land using non-fire methods. With fire, it costs only USD 20 per hectare. Fire is part of traditional farming in the past so if we ask them not to use fire, we need an alternative option.”
The best way to fight fire, he says, is for them not to happen in the first place.
Care in the community
One hands-on approach to prevent fires and restore degraded land is Community-Based Fire Prevention and Peatland Restoration, a programme pioneered by CIFOR and led by Purnomo in partnership with the University of Riau, as well as local government and local communities.
“We work with the community in using agroforestry to grow pineapples so that they can see with their own eyes how to farm without using fire,” Purnomo says. “We also block the canals so that the peatlands stay moist. If the peatlands are moist, then we don’t have a fire.”
But with the cost of fire clearance being so cheap, there has got to be a real incentive for farmers to adopt more sustainable methods.
“We show them the business model and we make sure the land is very good, so they get a high return from selling their goods,” Purnomo says. “Using fire is a crime and sustainably grown crops are easier to sell on the market, but it is still a work in progress proving to people that doing the right thing can be profitable.”
At the community level, Purnomo believes that farmers should be helped to make the right choices. For the bigger corporate actors, a stronger approach is needed.
Oil palm politics
Indonesian government officials estimate that
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, with an export value of over USD 18 million every year.
In a desperate attempt to control the spreading widlfires, the Indonesian government has sealed off more than 40 plantations that may be implicated in illegal fire setting, including one owned by a Singapore-based company and four affiliated with Malaysian corporate groups.
The uneasy compromise between economic and ecological imperatives is exacerbated by the involvement of foreign companies.
“Half of the oil palm plantations in Indonesia belong to Malaysian and Singaporean companies,” Purnomo says. “We have to work together,” he urges.
Following severe land and forest fires in 1997-1998, the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an agreement to prevent, monitor, and mitigate land and forest fires to control transboundary haze pollution through concerted national efforts, regional and international cooperation.
But when Indonesia’s forestry and environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar raised that sole responsibility for the haze did not just land on Indonesia, her Malaysian counterpart responded by accusing her of of being “in denial”.
If shouldering responsibility for the forest fires is politically challenging, putting out the fires is no easier.