- Forest fires have flared up in Sumatra again this dry season, belying the government’s claims that it has brought the annual problem under control.
- All of the fires recorded so far have been on peat forests, a carbon-rich terrain that a slew of government policies have specifically targeted for restoration and protection since the disastrous fire season of 2015.
- Environmental activists say there’s no transparency to gauge how well peat restoration efforts are progressing, and little engagement with NGOs on the ground.
- They warn of a continuation of the “business-as-usual” approach that sees the government typically only respond to fires after they’ve broken out.
JAKARTA — Forest fires have intensified in Sumatra, raising questions about the government’s claims it has succeeded in tackling the annual problem.
An area spanning nearly 26 square kilometers (10 square miles), or about 5,000 football fields, has gone up in smoke in the province of Riau, according to local media reports. Eleven of the 12 districts that make up the province have been affected, with thousands of people suffering from breathing problems due to the haze from the fires.
“The fires in Riau these past two months have been severe,” Muhammad Teguh Surya, executive director of the environmental NGO Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan, told Mongabay. “And the worst thing is that this thing hasn’t caught much attention. Instead, the president said there are no more fires, even though fires are raging hard [in Riau].”
President Joko Widodo famously claimed, during a debate with election rival Prabowo Subianto in February, that his administration’s policies had resulted in no fire incidents since the devastating blazes that swept the country in 2015.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry later acknowledged that there had been fires every year since, just on a smaller scale.
That pattern has resumed again this year, with all of the fires in Riau occurring on carbon-rich peatlands. These perennially moist areas are typically razed and drained by plantation companies to make way for monocultures of rubber, acacia, and oil palms, the most ubiquitous crop in Riau. The dried-out peat, rich in organic matter, then becomes a virtual tinderbox.
“In Riau, the most vulnerable are peat areas because they’re dry,” Isnadi Esman, secretary general of a network of peat conservation activists called Jaringan Masyarakat Gambut Riau, told Mongabay. “Last year, there were still fires on mineral soil. But this year, we haven’t detected fires on mineral soil. They’re all on peat.”
The presidentially appointed Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), set up after the 2015 fires, says this is because the dry conditions at this time of year are still confined to coastal areas, where peat forests abound. Mineral lands in the western part of Riau remain wet, BRG deputy Haris Gunawan told Mongabay.
But this kind of reasoning, say activists, points to there being little improvement since the 2015 fires that engulfed large swaths of forests in Sumatra and Borneo and sent clouds of toxic haze as far as Malaysia and Singapore.
“This means there hasn’t been an overhaul in the way the government handles land and forest fires,” Khalisah Khalid, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO, told Mongabay.
‘No need to be cocky’
The ongoing forest fires have cast doubt on the government’s ambitious plan to nearly halve the number of fire hotspots in Indonesia by 2019, which was announced in late 2017.
BRG chief Nazir Foead, meanwhile, defended his agency’s work on the ground.
According to the agency’s data, hotspots have declined by more than 90 percent in the BRG’s target areas every year since 2015.
“I believe this is a remarkable achievement,” Nazir said during a recent event in Jakarta. “This is all because of all of our hard work and strong instruction and supervision from the president.”
Yayasan Madani’s Teguh said the decline in the number and intensity of forest fires in the past three years was a mere fluke, thanks to wetter than normal weather. The area of burned land in 2017, at around 1,700 square kilometers (650 square miles), was only 6 percent of the total lost in 2015.
“We know the government is working [to address forest fires], but there’s no need to be cocky,” Teguh said, in reference to President Widodo’s claim of credit for “ending” the fires.
If anything, say environmentalists, the absence of an El Niño weather pattern in 2016 and 2017 helped keep fire incidents down during that period. The 2015 El Niño was blamed for a longer-than-usual dry season that year, which exacerbated the fire disaster.
And when the dry season returned in full force in 2018, so did the incidence of haze. Last year saw a significant uptick in forest fires, with 5,100 square kilometers (1,970 square miles) of land scorched — three times the area burned in 2017 — as a result of the more intense dry season than in the previous two years.
And that came despite the government deploying more resources than usual — more than $70 million in South Sumatra province alone — to prevent haze disrupting the 2018 Asian Games, which was co-hosted in the provincial capital, Palembang.
Teguh said this focused effort, in service to a one-off special event in which Indonesia’s global reputation was at stake, epitomized a key problem with Indonesia’s approach to fighting forest fires.
“Does the government make the same kind of effort in other provinces? And does it do so all the time?” he said. “That’s the problem with our approach, which is situational. During the rainy season, we’re not on guard. It’s not until the dry season that we wake up. But by then it’s too late.”
Nazir, meanwhile, said that while the dry season in 2018 was more severe than previous years, the number of hotspots still declined by more than nine tenths relative to 2015.
Business as usual?
Teguh said the government continued to take a responsive tack in combating forest fires, deploying firefighters and waterbombing planes only after a blaze has broken out.
The establishment of the peat restoration agency, the BRG, was supposed to change that approach to a preventive one. The agency is tasked with spearheading nationwide efforts to restore 24,000 square kilometers (9,300 square miles) of peatlands, the size of 4.5 million football fields, across the country by the end of 2020.
The idea is that restoring degraded peatland — by blocking drainage canals and rewetting the dried-out peat soil — will make these areas less prone to burning. And even if they do catch fire, it should be easier to contain the fires and extinguish them.
But Teguh said the peat restoration initiative was lacking in its implementation, with civil society groups rarely asked to be involved.
Some of the areas burning in Riau this year are those where BRG programs are in place, such as Lukun village in the district of Tebing Tinggi.
Haris of the BRG said the affected area, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the village, was the site of illegal logging, and that as a result of that activity, a project to block the peat drainage canals there hadn’t been able to start. He also said the villagers preferred that build fire-prevention measures be implemented closer to their homes and farms, even if areas further away were more susceptible to fires.
Khalisah of Walhi said the BRG should overcome these on-the-ground challenges if it truly wanted to be effective.
“The government can’t keep doing business as usual. If there are fires on locals’ plantations, what will the government do?” she said.
BRG’s Haris, meanwhile, said that despite the on-the-ground challenges, the peat restoration program had made some impacts in areas where the agency had done some works in.
“For regions that we’ve interfered, we can already see the impacts,” he said. “We can see some awareness [from locals to prevent fires].”
One of the main problems with how the government implements the peat restoration program is a lack of transparency about the progress of the initiative, according to Teguh.
The BRG is required to report its progress to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry as well as the office of the president’s chief of staff, or KSP, every quarter.
“The program’s been running for three years now but no one knows the actual progress of the initiative,” Teguh said. “We admit the BRG has done a lot, but since it doesn’t report its progress to the public periodically, we can’t contribute and participate.”
Nazir said that the peat agency had involved many local NGOs in its work.
“Local NGOs are involved many times in working side-by-side with community groups that carry out the building of peat restoration infrastructure in provinces,” he said.
BRG deputy Myrna A. Safitri, meanwhile, said that Teguh’s criticism on the lack of transparency was simply not true.
“The achievement of the restoration program has been informed through media,” she told Mongabay. “For instance, our three-year restoration report can be accessed by the public. Our team also spread the report to the media and local stakeholders.”
Another obstacle to the effectiveness of the government’s efforts is the lack of any review of existing permits on peatlands, according to Walhi policy analysis department head Even Sembiring.
Under a 2016 peat protection regulation, companies must relinquish those parts of their peat concessions that contain areas designated as protected for conservation. These include areas where the peat layer is deeper than 3 meters (10 feet) and which contain high biodiversity.
Even said many companies held permits that spanned such areas. In some cases, he said, companies submitted bogus environmental impact analyses, known locally as Amdal, to exploit forests with peat layer thicker than 3 meters, as evidenced in a government-sanctioned audit of companies in Riau in 2014.
But there’s been no follow-up to the audit, and no order for a review of existing permits, meaning it’s business as usual for those companies.
“The only way to save our peatland and to keep the carbon below the ground is to evaluate all permits on peat ecosystem,” Even told reporters in Jakarta. “The government should have made that a priority.”
Teguh said he was worried the ongoing fires in Riau weren’t getting a lot of public attention, with the news cycle gripped by the presidential and legislative elections slated for April 17. Barring any radical intervention, he warned, the fires could intensify in the next few weeks and even impact turnout for the elections.
“If the dry season persists and the government continues to sit around like it’s doing now, we’re worried that the elections might be disrupted,” Teguh said. “If there’s a repeat of the 2015 fire episode, our elections might be cancelled. Who wants to go to the polling stations if they can barely breathe?”
Clarification 3/29/2019: This story has been updated to reflect the views of BRG head Nazir Foead and BRG deputy Myrna A. Safitri.
Banner image: Fires engulf a palm oil plantation in Rokan Hilir district, Riau, Indonesia. Image by Zamzami/Mongabay Indonesia.