Indonesia’s fires: a hazy challenge for Southeast Asia

Published in East Asia Forum, July 8th, 2013
Author: Fitrian Ardiansyah, ANU,Original link:

In June 2013, Forest and land fires caused choking smog and transboundary haze in Southeast Asia. Indices of air pollution in Singapore, the southern Malaysia peninsula, and Indonesia’s Riau province had reached dangerous levels.

Smoke is seen while emanating from the grounds of a private palm oil concession company, formerly a peatland forest area, on 29 June 2013 in the Kampar district (Riau province), on Sumatra island. (Photo: AAP)

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised to Malaysia and Singapore for this dangerous hazard, stating that his administration is tackling the problem seriously. The National Agency for Disaster Management, for instance, has been given Rp25 billion (US$2.725 million) to create artificial rain to extinguish the fires.

Serious forest and land fires, although occurring in many countries, reoccur regularly in Indonesia, mainly in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (in 1982–83, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997–98, 2005, 2006–07, 2010 and now in 2013).

The official data from Indonesia’s forestry ministry show that 339 hotspots were found in Riau during the period of 14–17 June. The current number of hotspots may still be lower than at the peak of massive fires in times past, where the amount of hotspots reached 25,000 to 35,000 in a month — the highest in August 1997 when 37,938 were counted. But the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics predicted that due to a weather anomaly trapping smog and haze above Singapore, southern Malaysia and Riau, the accumulation of haze in that area was more severe than usual.

Conventional suppression approaches — extinguishing fires after they occur — are likely to be inadequate. Artificial rain, water bombing and firefighting on the ground may tackle the immediate symptoms but not necessarily the causes.

In the past, haze and massive forest and land fires were usually caused by clearing and preparing the lands with fire, to develop plantations, agriculture and other land-use activities.

A recent analysis conducted by the World Resources Institute appears to show a similar pattern of causality. The analysis indicates that in the period of 12–20 June 2013, 48 per cent of fires occurred outside of land concessions, 27 per cent in timber plantations, 20 per cent in oil palm plantations, 4 per cent in protected areas and 1 per cent in logging concessions. A significant number of fires happening inside timber and oil palm plantations and other land uses — in other words, outside of concessions, and so likely associated with activities for clearing further land for agriculture/plantation — suggests that actions in addressing forest and peat conversion, as well as forest and land fires in Indonesia, are yet to address the root causes of the problems.

Indonesia has enacted policy placing a moratorium on forest conversion. But the recent fires could mean that policy implementation is lacking, including when it comes to prosecuting offenders, from low-level farmers up to big-plantation owners or even the financiers. Deforestation and peat conversion — for logging or to establish plantations and agriculture lands — very often leads to fires during the dry months, and this is why effectively enforcing the moratorium is essential.

There is need for a breakthrough in programs, cutting to the heart of the political economy of land uses at different levels, to fundamentally transform and positively influence land users’ behaviour in managing their lands.

It is a common perception among land users that using fires is one of the cheapest land preparation methods available. It is therefore important for the government to equip its policies with the appropriate incentives and disincentives; operational and technical guidelines; a clear institutional framework with a strong mandate; and a system for implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

Some land-use actors have used loopholes arising from unclear policies and poor coordination between ministries and different layers of governments, to gain an unfair advantage. If this continues, deforestation, peat lands conversion and fires may well become an annual catastrophe for Southeast Asia. This can be alleviated if investors and private land-use workers cooperate with authorities and other stakeholders to ensure the implementation and enforcement of responsible and sustainable practices, including conversion moratoriums and zero-burning activities.

Regarding law enforcement, and changing corporate practices on the ground, it is clear that regional collaboration among, at least, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore is urgently needed. Such collaboration should cover not only government but the private sector and civil society groups too.

Concessions and plantations are owned and financed by Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans and others. Serious and proactive involvement and support for sustainable practices, by promoting, adopting and implementing zero-burning activities, as well as helping smallholders and local farmers to follow suit, are key elements of success in addressing Southeast Asia’s haze challenge. Financial institutions in the three countries and beyond, for instance, can develop robust investment screening policies to discourage high-risk investment patterns leading to deforestation and fires. Substantive investments, financial support and technical capacity need to be provided for small holders and poor farmers so that they have options to adopt zero-burning practices.

The public and consumers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore can further push companies to adopt sustainable practices by only purchasing products (palm oil, timber and the like) which have been produced in a sustainable manner.

Southeast Asian people, especially the citizens in these three countries, have every right to breathe fresh air and demand their governments and corporations act seriously, urgently and transparently so that responsible and sustainable practices become the norms. If such efforts can be done, this could send a strong signal to the market and governments that the people in the region will not tolerate environmental disasters now and in the future.

Fitrian Ardiansyah is a climate and sustainability specialist, a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University, and the recipient of the Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award.


Clearing up the region’s hazy future

Fitrian Ardiansyah, Climate Solutions Column, The Jakarta Post | Tue, 10/26/2010 10:58 AM | Environment

Forest and land fires break out again. Last week, Singaporean and Malaysian governments contacted the Indonesian government to “register their concerns” over the recurring haze problem.

According to news in the region, a number of schools in Malaysia were advised to temporarily close because the haze reached a “hazardous” level and the air pollution index in Singapore also reached unhealthy levels with cases of respiratory problems including asthma increasing significantly.

Fires and the associated haze have not only affected Singapore and Malaysia. Dumai airport in Riau province, in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was closed last Wednesday due to limited visibility.

The residents of Pekanbaru, the capital city of Riau, as reported by this paper, have complained about a thick haze blanketing the city as it has caused a number of health problems, ranging from eye irritations to respiratory infections.

Some Indonesian officials suggested traditional farmers practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were the major culprits of this year’s forest and land fires.

However, as detected by the Modis Terra Aqua satellite, 172 hotspots which were found in Riau during the period between Oct. 18-21 occurred mainly on pulpwood concessions and oil palm oil plantations. Only a small number of hotspots were found in forest and other land.

Forest and land fires occur in many countries around the world such as in the US (in California), Australia, Turkey, Spain, Russia, Greece and countries in Southeast Asia.

When discussing Southeast Asian fires, especially in Sumatra and Borneo, nevertheless, most studies and peer-reviewed journal articles agree that these fires were human induced.

These studies conclude that a combination of plantation and timber companies, unresolved land tenure disputes as well as land clearing by a massive number of individuals are believed to be the main causes of the fires.

Fires and the associated smog are not a new issue in Southeast Asia. Serious fires and haze seasons have recurred, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, in 1982-1983, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997-1998, 2005 and 2006-2007.

At the peak of massive forest and land fires, the amount of hotspots could reach 25,000 to 35,000 in a month. The highest occurred in August 1997 when 37,938 were counted.

This year’s hotspots may be nowhere near the amount of those in 1997-1998, 2005 or 2006-2007, but the manner in which the Indonesian government tackles this problem would indicate its willingness, power, assertiveness and capacity in dealing with bigger challenges of deforestation and peat land conversion.

“Extinguishing” fires in Indonesia is not a simple matter. Conventional suppression approaches — extinguishing fires after they occur — have been proven inadequate.

There is a pressing need for more comprehensive solutions and to address a wider range of concerns that cut to the heart of political-economy and administrative reforms in the country.

The first critical approach is prevention measures that can minimize the risks of destructive fires, which include a moratorium — i.e. the government stops granting licenses for land clearing on forest and peat lands — and a zero burning policy.

Since deforestation and peat lands clearing and drainage — for logging or to establish plantations and other land uses — very often give way to fires during the dry months, the moratorium is perceived to be an urgent solution to tackle deforestation and fires.

Following the agreement between Norway and Indonesia on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus (REDD+), the Indonesian government appears to be seriously preparing a moratorium on clearing forest and peat lands for two years starting next January.

However, with this year’s fires, the government is required to speed up this process so that the country can have clear regulations, an incentives mechanism, operational guidelines and technical guidance to implement, monitor and enforce the moratorium.

This clarity is needed because policy on a moratorium ought to be translated by different ministries — especially those influential in land use — at the national level and different layers of governments at the provincial or district level.

Some people may take advantage of unclear translation of policies and division of authorities on a moratorium among ministries and different layers of governments. If this is the case, deforestation, peat lands conversion and drainage, and forest and land fires are likely to continue to occur.

This pressure would be alleviated if investors and the private sector could work with the Indonesian authorities and other stakeholders to ensure sustainable practices such as by increasing productivity on existing plantations and developing non-forested land and non-peat land for timber and oil palm plantation expansion.

Timber concessions and oil palm plantations (owned not only by Indonesians but also Malaysians and Singaporeans) can further promote, adopt and implement zero-burning practices and help smallholders to follow suit.

Financial institutions, for instance, could develop robust investment screening policies to discourage high-risk investment patterns leading to deforestation or forest and land fires.

The consumer market can also help by favoring goods which are produced through guaranteed sustainable operations.

Jakarta will host the eighth Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) next month. The RSPO has incorporated the above important interventions in its principles and criteria (P&C) on sustainable palm oil.

RSPO and its members have, therefore, a momentous opportunity to demonstrate: that their P&C, when effectively implemented, can indeed help alleviate the problems of deforestation and fires on the ground.

Finally, the Indonesian government needs to lead swift actions on forest and land fires. However, Indonesia cannot and should not be expected to solve this problem alone.

Collaborative efforts between key countries, partners and players is the key to putting an end to the region’s widespread and recurring haze problems, and keeping its sky clear in the future.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, recipient of the Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award and advisor to WWF-Indonesia on climate and energy. He can be reached at

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