- Indonesia's haze crisis presents an opportunity for Jokowi to assert leadership on climate change.
- The crisis is driving consensus for action to address the issues that unpin forest and peatland degradation in Indonesia.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone.
This week data from Guido van der Werf of the Global Fire Emissions Database showed that carbon emissions from fires raging across Indonesia’s peatlands have surpassed 1.4 billion tons of CO2-equivalent, or more than the annual emissions of Japan. More conspicuously, the fires have triggered a spasm of air pollution that has mushroomed into a domestic health emergency and regional political crisis for Indonesia, with Indonesian companies seeing their products pulled from store shelves and facing multimillion dollar fines from the Singaporean government. That reaction comes on top of a steep dive in the Indonesian rupiah and a commodity market rout that has hit some of the country’s biggest exports, including oil, coal, palm oil, and rubber. These are dark days – literally and figuratively – for Indonesia.
Yet Indonesia’s public health crisis and ecological calamity presents President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – with an opportunity to finally enact reforms in the forest and plantation sectors his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono failed to implement. Jokowi has both the domestic support from citizens and business leaders to meaningfully adopt and implement policies that shift Indonesia away from practices that have wrecked the country’s forests and peatlands, heightened social conflict, eroded local food security, and made the country one of the world’s largest carbon polluters.
President Jokowi should seize this opportunity for definitive action in advance of his upcoming U.S. visit. Jokowi should use his visit with Obama, and his participation in the Paris climate meetings six weeks hence, to push for international support to help Indonesia root out the underlying problems that have created the current triple-lose crisis for his country’s environment, economy, and public health.
The fires that are driving haze across Southeast Asia are the product of land use policies that have promoted conversion of vast areas of carbon-dense peatlands and rainforests into monoculture plantations. The process began decades ago with logging concessions granted under former strongman Suharto, whose system of maintaining political patronage depended on doling out forest concessions in exchange for support. Once the valuable hardwoods were depleted, plantation industries took hold, converting logged-over forests to industrial plantations for timber, wood pulp, rubber, and palm oil. In the land rush, swampy peatlands – once seen as useless backwaters – were also drained and cleared for monocultures. Small companies and migrants poured into these areas clearing still more land to convert to plantations outright. The process in and of itself released vast amounts of carbon, but it also lit the fuse of an even bigger carbon time bomb.
That bomb is now exploding. Dry peatlands are highly flammable and once ignited are nearly impossible to extinguish. In normal years, the damage from peatland burning can be significant but the worst impacts are brought to an end by the rainy season. However an extended dry season – like that which characterizes el Nino years – can lead to large-scale devastation.
The first indication of how badly Indonesia’s land management practices have impacted ecosystems came during the severe 1982-1983 El Nino, when millions of hectares in Sumatra and Kalimantan went up in smoke. Yet that wasn’t taken as a wake up call – instead it sparked a rapid scale-up of the very practices that triggered the problem in the first place. Since 1983, the area under oil palm cultivation in Indonesia has expanded by 11 million hectares, wood pulp and timber by 4 million hectares, and rubber by 2 million hectares. And the cheapest way to clear land continued to be fire.
The world didn’t pay much attention to this activity. But the massive 1997-1998 fires – which burned more than 8 million hectares, caused billions of dollars in financial losses, put hundreds of thousands of people in hospitals with respiratory ailments, and sent tens of thousands more to an early grave – forced the world to take notice. Yet very little was done to address the problem. Concessions continued to be granted in peatlands, forests were thinned and degraded by loggers, and Indonesia refused to sign a regional transboundary haze agreement, which was meant to improve coordination in battling fires. Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, historically high commodity prices – especially palm oil – drove ever more interest in plantation development. Fires and haze became simply part of the cost of doing business. Only in 2013, when unfortunate winds drove more haze than usual over Singapore, did the issue again surface in international headlines.
With oceanographers forecasting a strong el Nino and little effort to address the issues that underpin land degradation in Sumatra and Borneo, it surprised no one that haze returned this year. Already fires and haze are shaping up to be the worst since 1997-1998. Guido van der Werf of the Global Fire Emissions Database in Amsterdam estimates that emissions from peatfires since early September are outpacing emissions from the entire U.S. economy. And the situation won’t improve until significant rains return.
Jokowi’s 2014 presidential run terrified the Indonesian political establishment. Of humble roots as a furniture maker, Jokowi’s strength came from his record of competent management and good governance while serving as mayor of Solo and then Jakarta, rather than the political or military connections Indonesia’s past leaders have relied upon. He was best known for his blusukan approach to management, where he made impromptu visits to villages, neighborhoods, and even government offices, as well as running a clean and capable administration. In other words, Jokowi was seen as a regular guy who defended public interests against the vested interests and corruption of the powerful and ruling class. He championed the concerns of real people.
Coming from outside the traditional power structure, there were concerns that Jokowi wouldn’t have the political capital needed to get things done. There were fears he would end up as little more than a puppet of the traditional powers that be.
And sure enough, it has been far from smooth sailing for Jokowi. Even before he took office, powerful interests have worked to undermine his agenda at nearly every turn. Forests, which have long been a source of wealth for some of Indonesia’s most powerful people, have been a casualty of this reality.
The current climate
The forestry and plantation sectors have had a rough go of it of late with falling prices undercutting the boom of the past decade-plus. Palm oil has been particularly hard hit, leading Indonesian politicians to concoct new subsidy schemes, including a biofuel mandate for blending palm oil into biodiesel. Leaders are even using “security” as a justification for large-scale plantation development in remote parts of Borneo and New Guinea. Pragmatic fixes like boosting yields of existing plantations and cracking down on fraudsters who sell inferior seed that locks smallholders into poverty, seem to be secondary priorities.
Taking on these interests hasn’t be easy, but Jokowi has a golden opportunity to take action thanks to recent commitments made by some of Indonesia’s biggest companies and international concern about the haze crisis.
A number of companies that operate in Indonesia have aspirations to be global players, which they can’t achieve via land-grabbing, sparking social conflict, torching the countryside, and bulldozing old-growth forests. Accordingly they have prominently adopted zero-deforestation policies that set standards for production and sourcing. But several of these companies now have major credibility problems after satellite imagery have showed fire hotspots in concessions they control. While the companies maintain they didn’t set the fires and are doing everything possible to put them out, they have nonetheless taken a public hit during the crisis, which has caused some to call for long-term solutions, including more clarity around land rights and better law enforcement. Whether or not that is temporary positioning, these companies’ public commitments and haze exposure have potentially shifted them from upholders of business-as-usual interests to constituents in the battle for reform.
Like Jokowi, some of these companies have gotten pushback from elements in the Indonesian government. For example the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs recently asserted the signatories of the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge, a commitment to end deforestation for palm oil production, were hurting Indonesia with their commitments. Jokowi could point out that the haze is what’s really hurting Indonesians: indeed research by Miriam Marlier at UCLA found that the 1997-1998 haze caused the premature death of more than 11,000 adults from cardiovascular disease. The impact on infants and youths was thought to have been even higher.
On the international front, Indonesia’s neighbors are clamoring for action. After years of doing little more than complaining, Singapore has begun to hold companies accountable for their role in the problem, levying fines against companies associated with haze-causing fires. Many of these companies are listed, headquartered, or have offices in Singapore, whose reputation as a nice place to live and a good place to do business is at stake with the haze. Singapore, Malaysia, and others have offered technical, operational, and financial support to help Indonesia battle fires.
Further afield, the crisis has captured the attention of diplomats preparing for the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Indeed, climate is reportedly a top agenda item for Jokowi’s meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington next week.
With these two potentially powerful constituents, plus support from the Indonesian citizens who elected him to serve as a guardian of the public interest, Jokowi can push forward on an agenda that would both address haze and strengthen Indonesia’s commitment to battling climate change.
Serious changes are needed to combat the ongoing cycle of land degradation, fire, and haze that plagues large swathes of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, and could well affect Indonesian New Guinea in the near future.
Indonesia has already taken important steps. Since 2011, it has had a moratorium that limits new concessions in millions of hectares of forests and peatlands. It has initiated the so-called “One Map” process to resolve overlapping land claims and committed to recognize traditional land rights. The government is also more forthcoming on how forests are being used, providing data to platforms like Global Forest Watch that improve accountability. But to address haze on a timescale that is relevant for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, Indonesia must accelerate progress in key areas.
Stronger protection of sensitive areas. Although Indonesia established a moratorium on new logging and plantation concessions in 2011, it continues to allow activities that degrade peat areas and create conditions that exacerbate fire and haze. Given the severity of the current situation, Jokowi’s administration should enforce a moratorium on conversion of all peatlands until the Ministry of Environment completes a re-evaluation of concessions in deep peat areas. Audits should be undertaken to ensure all laws governing peatlands and forests are being respected. In cases where laws have been followed, the administration should consider more radical approaches like buying out concessions and relicensing them for ecosystem restoration. Jokowi could show real leadership ahead of the Paris COP with a strong peat moratorium and a commitment to restore all recently burned peatlands.
Ecosystem restoration. In the aftermath of past haze events, developers have capitalized on the damage wrought by fires to develop peatlands for oil palm. Jokowi should end that practice by declaring a prohibition on planting in newly burned areas. Financial incentives – perhaps underwritten by the international community via mechanisms likely to be adopted at the Paris climate summit in December – should be offered for restoring the hydrological and ecological function of these areas. To ensure that these efforts produce results, financing could be linked to actual outcomes and include ongoing compensation for ecosystem maintenance. Jokowi should also make it clear that companies will not be penalized for setting aside high carbon stock and high conservation value areas for preservation. A company that commits to protecting Indonesia’s natural assets – which are the country’s one true competitive advantage – should be rewarded by the government, not face revocation of its licenses.
Law enforcement. Indonesia has many laws that on paper protect peatlands that are currently going up in flames. But these laws are often conflicting and haphazardly enforced, leading to selective and sometimes discriminatory prosecution. The Indonesian government needs to deal seriously and consistently with violators, punishing transgressors whether they are company executives, well-connected speculators, or encroachers. Burn laws can no longer be ignored and the national law governing peatlands (PP Gambut no 71 of 2014) must be strictly enforced. Officials who consistently fail to address fires in their districts should be held to account.
Monitoring. Between satellite data, platforms like Global Forest Watch, and reports from NGOs, there is plenty of information on where fires are burning, facilitating fire-fighting efforts, but the Indonesian government is preventing the publication of up-to-date concession maps that would facilitate law enforcement efforts and improve private sector accountability. Having up-to-date information would also enable intelligence to be applied before fires actually start. Predictive modeling, local monitoring networks, and outreach campaigns could all help with fire prevention, a far more cost-effective option than fire fighting.
Land conflict. Contested land claims are a problem throughout Indonesia due to poor record-keeping, lack of communication between various levels of government and agencies, corruption, and outright fraud. Sorting out who has what rights to what land is enormously complex but critical to establishing good governance, including seemingly mundane things like tax collection, permit auditing, and spatial planning. Jokowi needs to commit to a timeline and the resources to making One Map a reality.
Experimentation. At the district and provincial level, local governments and the private sector are experimenting with new approaches that aim to address the problems that underpin fire and haze. For example in Central Kalimantan, which has been particularly hard hit by fires, there is an effort to bring all palm oil producers in a given jurisdiction under a sustainable production standard. Under that approach, buyers could be assured that all palm oil produced in a certain jurisdiction met production criteria. Producers would be kept in line with peer pressure—any producer who failed to uphold the standard would risk everyone in the district losing their certification.
Comprehensive accounting. Land use decisions in Indonesia have traditionally focused on gross output rather than the cost of achieving that output. As a result, production of bulk commodities like palm oil, timber, and wood pulp has been prioritized over diversified income streams. And externalities like water and air pollution, subsidence and flooding, reduced food security, increased ambient temperatures, and heightened fire risk have been ignored. But as the current haze crisis is showing, the cost of business as usual is very high. The Indonesian government can help by starting to realign incentives to push development in more sustainable directions, including encouraging joint ventures between communities and companies that target non-forest lands outside of peat areas. Ministries should offer tax breaks for better management and align production goals with higher yields, not the extent of plantations. Where communities are protecting forests, the government should recognize their rights, not keep their claims in legal limbo. Fiscal policy should benefit local governments who are practicing low-carbon sustainable development programs, thus eliminating incentives for conversion of natural forest and peatlands.
These measures can move Indonesia toward addressing the underlying causes of its current environmental crisis. They also offer a path toward a more sustainable and equitable future in Indonesia.
Could the haze crisis save Indonesia’s forests?
The haze crisis may seem like an unlikely savior of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands, but if Jokowi plays it right, it could become just that.
Leveraging international momentum for action on climate change and prominent commitments from big companies, Jokowi could parlay the darkened skies over Southeast Asia into a much bigger win that both fulfills the promise the electorate saw in him – defending the public interest in the face of entrenched interests and long odds – and boosts Indonesia’s standing aboard. Indonesian citizens, the international community, and investors – both domestic and foreign – would surely react favorably.