Tackling Indonesia’s Devastating Forest Fires

By Murray Hiebert

Smoke from a large forest fire in Sumatra, Indonesia seen from space. Source: NASA Goddard Photo and Video flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Smoke from a large forest fire in Sumatra, Indonesia seen from outer space. Source: NASA Goddard Photo and Video flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

When President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo departed Jakarta for a summit in Washington on October 24, he left behind devastating forest fires that are choking Indonesia and its neighborhood under a dense cloud of smoke. His aides say Jokowi considered postponing his trip to stay home to deal with the fires that are threatening to turn into a full-blown regional security crisis, but in the end decided to leave behind his coordinating minister for politics, law, and security, Luhut Panjaitan, to tackle the fires.

President Barack Obama is expected to discuss climate issues with Jokowi when they meet in Washington. The U.S. president will likely use the opportunity to discuss how the United States and the international community might help reduce the fires – and the resulting carbon emissions – ahead of the global climate change summit in Paris in December.

Nearly 100,000 forest fires have been burning mostly out of control across swaths of Indonesia for months, particularly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, worsened by the near drought conditions created by the El Nino weather phenomenon. The Global Fire Emissions Database estimates that since September emissions by the fires each day exceed the average daily emissions caused by all U.S. economic activity.

Damaging fires in 1997 cost the Indonesian government an estimated $20 billion, according to report by Ecological Economics, while Singapore estimated its costs due to disruptions to business and air travel and increased healthcare costs at $9 billion. Flights in the region have been cancelled, cargo ships through the Malacca Strait have been delayed, and schools have shut.

Most of the fires were started to convert peatland into agricultural fields cheaply, particularly for growing oil palm trees and paper-and-pulp plantations. These peat fires emit as much as 10 times as much methane greenhouse gases as ordinary fires and the impact of the methane is 25 times that of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Indonesian government in September declared a state of emergency in half a dozen provinces, but if anything the fires have worsened. The government has deployed some 25,000 personnel along with planes and helicopters to tackle the fires. And it is preparing warships to evacuate children and others suffering from smoke inhalation in the worst affected areas. Jokowi has also called on officials to charge companies that set the fires and has proposed a law that would ban companies that burn off land from developing it.

After months of insisting that it could handle the fires by itself, the government finally agreed in early October to accept equipment and firefighters from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and Russia. But Luhut, the minister charged with dealing with the fires, said recently that Indonesia had little hope of putting out the fires until the end of November when heavy monsoon rains should start.

Anger about the smog has increased within Indonesia and in the hard hit countries of Malaysia and Singapore. Demonstrators gathered in Central Kalimantan in late September to protest what they said was government inaction. Consumers in Singapore have launched an informal boycott of goods from Indonesia in an effort to hit the bottom lines of companies perpetrating the fires.

Singapore’s National Environmental Agency has mounted proceedings under a transboundary pollution law against six Indonesian companies believed to be involved in the fires. It has sent cease-and-desist notices to the companies and asked them to submit plans on how they plan to put out the fires. Under the legislation, Singapore can fine offending firms $70,000 for each day the toxic fires continue.

Earlier this year, the Indonesian supreme court upheld charges against a palm oil company that was charged with burning a protected forest in Sumatra three years ago. The firm was ordered to pay a fine of over $25 million, according to local press accounts. Indonesia’s police chief said recently that executives of seven companies had been arrested for their roles in starting the fires. But the procedures to punish firms for violations often take years. Many companies ignore the law and are able to pay off local officials and law enforcement officers to avoid prosecution.

Some experts have said that ultimately the government will need to provide economic incentives to companies and protection to whistleblowers so they are willing to report serious violators. Some have suggested that a kind of certification system should be developed to identify environmentally friendly palm oil and pulp producers (perhaps similar to the system the European Union is developing to ban fish from Thailand caught with forced labor) so that governments and consumers can take action to avoid products produced by using environmentally damaging methods.

Others have urged Indonesia to look to Brazil for ideas based on its successful policies to tackle similar destructive forest use methods a decade ago. A new government in Brazil introduced a rigorous system to monitor illegal land clearing, initiated a moratorium on converting peatland, and conditional funding for provinces on rigorously enforcing low deforestation rates.

Obama should use his meeting with Jokowi to explore ways the United States could support Indonesia’s efforts to reduce deforestation. Over the past year, half a dozen large palm oil producers in Indonesia have pledged to stop selling palm oil produced illegally on the nation’s forests. But to ensure these pledges are implemented will require government policies and regulations that have teeth.

The United States could offer assistance to develop an international monitoring system that would disqualify companies from selling on global markets that are not certified as having produced their products legally and by employing environmentally friendly farming practices. Concerns by the palm oil companies that they could face an international boycott may give Jokowi some of the support he needs to stifle the disastrous peat fires.

Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


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