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COVID-19 may worsen burning and haze as Indonesia enters dry season

A military personnel extinguishes fires at Panderman Mountain in East Java, Indonesia. Image by Falahi Mubarok/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Reallocation of disaster preparedness funds for the COVID-19 pandemic could allow a flare-up of forest fires and haze as the dry season gets underway in Indonesia, with smog from Sumatra reported to have reached Southern Thailand.
  • While the country is expected to see a milder dry season than last year, any haze episodes will exacerbate an already precarious public health situation as a result of the pandemic.
  • Researchers in Singapore say Indonesian authorities are largely on the right track in preventing fires, which are typically set to clear land for plantations, but more needs to be done in terms of enforcement on the ground.
  • They also suggest that small and medium plantation companies — rather than large companies or smallholder farmers — will have the most impact on how severe the fire and haze problem will be.

JAKARTA — Milder weather is expected to bring about a less severe forest fire season across Indonesia this year compared to 2019. But cutbacks to fire-prevention measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and deregulation could still see large amounts of haze generated, threatening an already precarious public health situation in the region.

Smog from Indonesia’s island of Sumatra had reached four provinces in the southern part of Thailand on July 5, with Songkhla being the province hit the hardest from the rising level of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter deemed harmful to human health, according to Thananchai Suwansuk, head of the environment office overseeing Thailand’s southern region.

(Editor’s note: Since this article was published, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry has denied that haze from fires in Sumatra has reached Thailand, citing its own analysis of satellite imagery. The ministry said there were only four hotspots with high confidence level in Sumatra on July 5, and that the analysis of satellite images didn’t detect the existence of transboundary haze either)

Without stronger efforts from all stakeholders, the haze situation could worsen and affect more places in the region, researchers at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) warn.

In their Haze Outlook 2020 report, the researchers looked at three factors — weather, peat and people — to assess the risk of transboundary haze in Southeast Asia during the coming dry season.

The fires and haze are an annual problem, as forests are deliberately razed for commercial agriculture, primarily oil palms. Particularly susceptible are carbon-rich peat forests, which are drained before being cleared, leaving the peat layer highly combustible. The 2019 fire season was the worst since 2015, with 1.65 million hectares (4 million acres) of area burned and the cost to the economy estimated at $5.2 billion, or 0.5% of Indonesia’s GDP.

Unusually hot and dry conditions exacerbated the problem last year, sending haze as far as Singapore and Malaysia, but conditions this year will be much less severe, the SIIA report says.

“The dry season in 2020 is expected to be milder than 2019, with the meteorological factors that typically influence fires and haze expected to be neutral this year,” the report says. “It also appears that the Indonesian government and the largest resource sector companies are continuing efforts to prevent and suppress fires on the ground, although there are some issues that bear watching.”

But it warns the COVID-19 pandemic could throw a spanner in the works, with mobility restrictions halting on-the-ground monitoring, and funding that would otherwise go to fire-prevention efforts being reallocated instead to health services.

“We’re seeing reports from our stakeholders and friends that restrictions are making it difficult, even for the private sector to patrol their own areas,” said Aaron Choo, the SIIA assistant director for international affairs and media.

Engagement with local communities and oil palm growers to prevent and combat fires has also been affected by the virus.

“We’ve heard from our friends in the industry that engagement with communities for fire-free programs and so on is continuing through publication, by taking it online,” Choo said. “But that’s not a full substitute of a face-to- face engagement. There are concerns as well that in some areas, the internet access is not universal or fully reliable.”

Fire burning through forest and oil palm on peatlands in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Funding reallocated to COVID-19

Indonesia and Singapore have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in East Asia, behind China. As of July 2, there were 59,394 recorded infections in Indonesia and 44,310 in Singapore. Indonesia also reported 2,987 deaths (second only to China in East Asia), and Singapore 26 deaths.

The Indonesian government has confirmed that the pandemic has made it more difficult to deploy personnel to the ground due to physical distancing measures in place across most provinces.

“Our teams are facing difficulties in entering locations under lockdown,” Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, director-general of climate change at the environment ministry, said during a recent online discussion. “The procedure is long and so our access to the fire spots is restricted.”

Alue Dohong, the deputy minister, said some of the ministry’s budget had been reallocated for the government’s COVID-19 response. In April, the ministry saw its budget for the year cut by 17%, or about $111 million. Funding for its firefighting team was cut by half, and for integrated patrols by a third.

The COVID-19 response also draws from the disaster relief fund, which means those funds may not be available in the event of a fire and haze crisis.

“Of course all budget is focused there,” Alue said of the pandemic. “It means that all ministries, local governments, the private sector and the public are forced to refocus a part of their resources to handle COVID-19. And the environment ministry is no exception. But we still prioritize land and forest fires.”

“We don’t see that the Indonesian government has neglected its duty,” said SIIA chairman Simon Tay. “In fact, I’d say that they are taking this very seriously.”

But being caught short of resources to prevent and fight fires could have serious implications for public health amid the ongoing pandemic, especially given that haze from burning triggers respiratory illnesses, the SIIA report says.

“Should a major haze incident occur in the ASEAN region while the world is still battling the pandemic, this would add to the public health burden, with poor air quality exacerbating respiratory ailments,” the report said. “Although regional policymakers and business leaders are understandably preoccupied by the fallout from the pandemic, early measures must be taken to ensure that the fires and transboundary haze do not recur during this period, and that adequate resources are in place to respond promptly to fires and haze alongside COVID-19.”

Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Policy factors

Adding fuel to the literal forest fires are government policies that effectively roll back prohibitions on burning.

One of these is the narrowing of the type of peat landscape that must be protected, defined as peat domes where the carbon-rich peat layer is so thick that it forms a hillock.

“In 2019, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry relaxed some guidelines on the protection of peat landscapes, requiring concession holders to protect peat dome, instead of all peat areas deeper than 3 meters [10 feet],” Tay said. “Secondly, there’s the omnibus bill.”

That’s a much-criticized deregulation bill, now in parliament, aimed at easing business and investment in the country through, among other measures, dismantling environmental protections. While some proposed changes under the bill have been welcomed from a sustainability standpoint — such as the ability of plantation concession holders to carry out conservation work within their concessions without applying for a separate ecosystem restoration permit — others push in the opposite direction.

Among them: Provinces will no longer be required to maintain at least 30% of their territory as forest area; and companies will have reduced liability for fires in their concessions.

That latter point is critical in the fight against forest fires. Since 2015, the environment ministry has won record fines from companies with fires on their concessions, regardless of whether or not they could be proved to have started the fires. This concept of strict liability is seen as a key factor in keeping concession holders vigilant about fire prevention and mitigation.

The bill, however, scales back this measure of liability by stipulating that companies can only be prosecuted if they can be shown to have started the fires. This would allow companies to evade responsibility for fires on their concessions.

The argument the government uses to justify the proposed change to strict liability is exactly the same as that used by palm oil and paper lobby groups when they challenged the concept at Indonesia’s highest court in 2017. Their rationale at the time was that they should be responsible only for their own negligence, otherwise they must not be held accountable. However, they subsequently dropped their lawsuit, saying they needed more time to study the rule.

Bambang Dwi Laksono, head of sustainability at GAPKI, the Indonesian palm oil association, said there was a “lack of consistency” between the strict liability imposed on plantation companies and the leeway given to indigenous communities to clear land using fire.

“So if there’s strict liability [for companies] but there are exceptions all over the place, of course this has implications to companies as concession holders,” he said in a recent online discussion.

Bambang Hendroyono, secretary-general of the environment ministry, said the concept of strict liability was needed, given that many plantation companies still “haven’t met the requirement to prevent [fires] with tools and infrastructure.”

An inter-agency audit of 17 plantation and logging concessions in Sumatra’s Riau province in 2014 found that all had failed to meet fire prevention and control standards. Several companies were also found to be working in prohibited areas, including forests with a peat layer deeper than 3 meters.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, a fire forensics expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) who was involved in the audit, said that while companies might claim that they had built the necessary infrastructure to prevent and combat fires, what he found when visiting their concessions left a lot to desire.

He recounted an audit that he did on a particular company.

“When we did on-the-ground verification, they [the company] proudly said that they had built a [fire monitoring] tower,” Bambang said. “When we checked [the tower], it’s located in a previously-burned area. If the tower was built before the fire, then it should’ve been burned [by the fire]. It means they built the tower after the fire. And it’s only a two-floor tower, with five meters in height.”

A patrolling team hired by oil palm company PT ATGA to douse fires in its concession. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

Small companies, big impact

Companies, more than smallholders, seem to be the main drivers of the fires, the SIIA report suggests, noting that many of the fires in 2019 appeared to be systematic efforts to clear land for commercial planting.

“Some [smallholders] may set fires but they’re generally not on the scale that would really cause major severe haze incident,” said the SIIA’s Tay. “Particularly this year, since [the weather is] going to be neutral to slightly wetter, then small scale fires may not spread out of control.”

But while large companies are making efforts to live up to their sustainability commitments, there remain concerns that medium-sized companies are not doing more to prevent the use of fire for land management and improve sustainability practices, the report says.

“Resource sector companies, NGOs, and experts now argue that the greatest risk of fires comes from small and medium-sized companies, rather than major business groups,” it said.

Unlike big, high-profile companies, many small and medium-sized companies don’t participate in international certification schemes, resulting in weaker oversight of their activities. Many are also focused on the domestic market, which doesn’t place as high a premium on sustainable practices as international buyers do.

“They have scale to have a real impact. But they haven’t had that publicity, reputational concern,” Tay said. “They don’t belong to the right industry groups that have been driving sustainability.”

Small and medium companies also face funding constraints that large, often publicly listed players don’t. That makes it less likely they will invest in fire-prevention measures, and more likely they will actually use fires to clear land on the cheap. Some may even be operating on illegally occupied land, and therefore know they can’t qualify for certification schemes or programs meant to encourage sustainability.

According to a 2019 report by the national auditing agency, known as the BPK, hundreds of oil palm plantation companies are flouting environmental regulations. It found 194 companies in just 15 districts surveyed did not have business permits for the combined 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land under their control. The report also identified 181 companies operating inside 349,000 hectares (862,400 acres) of forest areas, which are supposed to be off-limits for plantations; 110 companies operating on 345,000 hectares (852,500 acres) of peatlands also didn’t have the necessary permits.

In total, 584 companies failed to meet the criteria for the Indonesian government’s official sustainable certification scheme, the ISPO, which is mandatory for all oil palm growers, and 222 managed concessions that overlapped with other permits or local communities, resulting in risks of conflict.

The SIIA’s Choo said the Indonesian government should strengthen its law enforcement to address these problems.

“Indonesia’s laws are strong on this front,” he said. “The shortcoming is law enforcement and cases making their way through the courts. For burning incidents in the last few years, the environment ministry has been investigating and taking some cases to court. The unfortunate problem is that due to legal maneuvering, difficulties of attributing ownership, very few of those have resulted in convictions, and very few fines have been levied. And the problem becomes collecting your fines.”

Fires in peat land in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Protecting peatlands

Authorities are already bracing for the potential for fire and haze as Indonesia enters the dry season. The government of Central Kalimantan province, home to vast swaths of peat forest on the island of Borneo, has already declared a state of emergency after identifying more than 700 fires there, Reuters reported. President Joko Widodo has called on authorities to prepare ahead of the expected peak of the dry season in August.

Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister, said the Sumatran province of Riau had passed largely unscathed through an earlier dry spell, from February through April, thanks to cloud-seeding efforts to induce rainfall. While haze was detected in Riau for 18 days, and offshore in the Riau Islands archipelago for 10 days, between March and April, it didn’t spread to Singapore, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the Riau Islands.

Siti said authorities would carry out cloud-seeding over Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, through mid-July. “After that, we have to return to [do it in] Sumatra, and then go back to Kalimantan again,” she told lawmakers at a hearing in parliament. “We will keep maintaining this until September.”

Preventing the burning of peatland isn’t just about preventing haze. Tropical peat soils are among the densest stores of carbon dioxide in the world, and burning them releases huge amounts of the greenhouse gas. While the scale of the burning in Indonesia in 2019, at 1.65 million hectares, was small compared to the areas razed that year in the Amazon and Australia — 7.1 million hectares (17.5 million acres) and 12.6 million hectares (31.1 million acres) respectively — the climate impact was much greater: 708 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to the annual emissions of a major industrial economy such as Germany, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). That’s nearly double the amount emitted by the Amazon fires (366 million metric tons), and about two-thirds more than the Australian bushfires (434 million metric tonnes).

“That’s why we have to be really cautious in maintaining peatlands to remain wet and not burned,” said Ruandha from the environment ministry.

Protecting peatlands falls under the remit of the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, established in 2016 in the wake of the 2015 fires. It has a mandate to restore 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of degraded peatlands by the end of 2020, and is reportedly on track to doing so.

“Unfortunately, the agency’s future beyond 2020 is unclear,” the SIIA report said. “Media reports have said the President is inclined to renew the agency’s mandate, but thus far no new presidential regulation has been issued.”

And even if the BRG’s operating period is extended, it’s not clear how much funding it will receive post-2020, especially given the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Indonesian economy.

“The most positive outcome would be for the BRG’s mandate not only to continue but to be strengthened, with more resources for the institution in its second phase,” the report said.

During the parliamentary hearing with the environment minister, lawmaker Riezky Aprilia recommended the BRG be given greater authority to manage the country’s peatlands, starting by separating its budget from under the environment ministry and increasing it.

“If needed, the BRG should become an agency with its own budget,” she said. “I really want our peatlands to be protected in the future for our children and grandchildren.”

The ministry is seeking parliamentary approval for a budget increase of 500 billion rupiah ($35 million), to be used for peatland rehabilitation and forest fire mitigation, among other measures, Siti said.

With adequate resources, favorable policies, and timely enforcement, there’s a good chance Indonesia and its neighbors will avoid a haze disaster this year.

“Southeast Asia may still see clear skies in 2020 if the global economy recovers swiftly from the pandemic, and if fire and haze preparedness in Indonesia are not further hindered by a prolonged COVID-19 crisis,” the SIIA report said. “But concerted action to strengthen sustainability commitments within the resource sector is needed, particularly among small to medium-sized companies within the region’s supply chains.”


Banner image: A military personnel extinguishes fires at Panderman Mountain in East Java, Indonesia. Image by Falahi Mubarok/Mongabay Indonesia.


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