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Another year of fires, another year of inaction

This natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard the Terra satellite on Feb. 28, 2014. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS's thermal bands, are outlined in red..
This natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard the Terra satellite on Feb. 28, 2014. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

With a 70% chance of an El Niño this year, Indonesia could soon be facing the ire of its nearest neighbors yet again as the dry season approaches with the ever present threat of vegetation fires.

Smoke, haze, call it what you will, it’s an annual event affecting people and the environment both at home and abroad. Newsworthy but nothing new in this story. An Indonesian newspaper headline from October 1994: “Political-will needed to prevent forest fires”. Twenty years later, just last week, “Singapore braces for worst “haze” season as Indonesia fails to halt slash-and-burn”. The issue of land and forest fires in Indonesia is evidently an old one. Trust me, it won’t go away any time soon.

Fires come in waves. Sometimes they are small, sometimes bigger, depending on how dry it gets. But each wave is followed by international outcry, national media attention, government commitment to do something about those damn fires, new donor money to help government, a bunch of fresh fire projects promising solutions, and ultimately endless broken promises.

Then it starts to rain. Fires go out. The heat is off the government. Projects close down. Donors look for the next environmental poster child. And we all forget what it was like.

A burned oil palm plantation in Riau in May 2014. Photo by Rhett Butler.

The bottom line is that many people here burn, it’s a basic human instinct, an artifact from our early beginnings, and people will keep on burning until the costs of burning outweigh the benefits.
Burning happens everywhere. People habitually burn household rubbish and piles of swept leaves in the Jakarta suburbs where I live. It’s a great way to great rid of stuff. The smoke doesn’t seem to bother anyone, or if I ask, people tell me it’s good as it keeps mosquitoes away. The fact that we are breathing dioxins from burning plastic seems to bother few if any.

Outside Jakarta, and pretty much in any rice growing part of Indonesia, there is annual burning of rice field stubble. When I lived among Bali’s sawahs, I was surprised how often our house filled up with thick smoke. Again, no one seemed to mind, apart from me of course.

And the same happens in Indonesia’s forests, where people have cultivated land through slash-and-burn agriculture for many centuries. As a low intensity land use, this works quite well. You chop down a piece of forest, burn it, use the ashes to increase soil fertility, grow crops for a few years and then let it grow back to forest.

Thus fire is an integral part of Indonesia’s cleaning schedule. It removes stuff you don’t want, and the smoke has some additional healing benefits. Smoke and fire are good. Just like kretek cigarettes were once promoted for treating tuberculosis.

The point is that fires will not go away easily. People will only stop if the cost of burning gets too high. That could be because there are serious fines for burning. It could also be because there is nothing of low value left to burn, for example, when all land is covered by permanent crops that are worth more standing than burnt down.

Fire in Riau in February 2014. Photo by Rhett Butler.

The national law no. 18 of 2004 states that every person who will open land by burning is threatened with imprisonment of ten years and a fine of up to ten billion rupiah. Obviously, despite continuous burning there are not millions of arsonists in Indonesian prisons, and neither have they paid some 10 trillion USD in fines into Indonesia’s coffers. The government would be a heck of a lot richer if they had.

Still, law enforcement has worked. I have been flying over Indonesia for many years. It used to be par for the course to see major fires on lands that were being “opened up” for plantations. This is now much rarer. The last one I saw was a few months ago, just outside Pontianak, where an oil palm plantation was clearly burning down scrub ahead of planting.

It really took me by surprise, and I was unfortunately not quick enough to grab my phone and take some pictures.

Because the use of fire is apparently so fundamental to the human psyche, solutions won’t be easy to find. A helpful start would be to zone the country into strict no burning areas, and other areas where occasional use of fire is allowed. Peat swamps should be in the former zone, because fires there are among the most damaging, with irreversible impacts. Strictly enforcing a no burning policy on peat by handing out stiff fines and jail sentences to any person or company involved in burning, would be very effective in stopping fires in these areas.

Elsewhere it is more about education. What alternatives exist for burning house hold rubbish (effective waste collection, duh!)? Are there good ways to prepare rice fields for next year’s planting without the use of fire? Finally, secure tenure and land rights would help hugely. It is much easier to burn something if it doesn’t strictly belong to you.

As I am writing this, I am in my car. It’s nearly 7 am, a weak sun shines through the smog and smoke-filled sky, reminding me that there is a long way to go for Indonesia. If only those dry season winds would blow south into the Indian Ocean rather than north towards Singapore, then no one would complain, and Indonesia wouldn’t find itself in the international spot light again.

Indonesia should brace itself for another smoky year. If that’s a concern to the country, the annual empty talk about solving the problem and palliative measures should stop and some decisive action should be taken to reverse the recurring fire issue.

Smoke in an oil palm plantation in Riau.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe and has been reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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