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Palm oil, pulpwood firms not doing enough to prevent peat fires, analysis shows

Smoke, allegedly from a fire used for land clearing, billows at an oil palm plantation at a peat swamp in Aceh province, Indonesia, in 2012. Image by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • More than 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of oil palm, pulpwood and other concessions across Indonesia are at high risk of being burned because of companies’ failure to restore the peat landscape, according to a new analysis.
  • This represents more than half of the Switzerland-sized area of tropical peatland throughout Indonesia that’s considered a high fire risk.
  • With many concession holders still not doing enough to restore the peat landscapes in their concessions, researchers question the effectiveness of government mandates and certification schemes in preventing peat fires.
  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) credits its early fire detection system with helping member concessions achieve lower numbers of hotspots than noncertified concessions, but groups like Greenpeace dispute the findings.

JAKARTA — A new analysis has found a Switzerland-sized area of tropical peatland in Indonesia is at high risk of fire. More than half of the 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) lies within corporate concessions and their buffer zones, with little sign that companies are taking the necessary measures to prevent fires in these carbon-rich landscapes.

The analysis by peat watchdog Pantau Gambut looked at more than 2,300 concessions issued to palm oil, pulpwood, logging and other companies, and found more than 800 of them at high risk of burning.

Tropical peatland stores massive volumes of carbon in the thick layer of partially decomposed vegetation that makes up this landscape. In Indonesia, companies with peatland in their concessions have typically cut canals through this layer to drain it ahead of planting, rendering the peat layer tinder-dry and highly flammable.

The government required concession holders to restore 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of peatlands from 2016 to 2019, and reported that they exceeded the target by restoring 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres).

But that still leaves 2.06 million hectares (5.09 million acres) of peat inside concessions and buffer zones unrestored and at high risk of burning, according to Pantau Gambut. Wahyu Perdana, a researcher with the organization, said many companies haven’t taken the necessary measures to remedy the draining, such as blocking the canals to allow the peat layer to soak up moisture again.

Almi Ramadhi, another Pantau Gambut researcher, attributed the dearth of restoration work by concession holders to the limited oversight from the government’s Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM).

“They only [focus on] restoring [peatlands] in villages,” he said, largely leaving corporate concession holders to their own devices.

Wahyu said the BRGM’s authority was weakened when its mandate was extended in early 2021 to include mangrove restoration alongside peat.

“It was a given greater mandate, but the agency’s power is reduced as it could no longer supervise [peat restoration in] concessions,” he said.

In 2021, Pantau Gambut looked at 335 peat-containing concessions in seven provinces that had burned in the past, to see whether they’d been restored by the concession holders as required by the government.

It found that nearly all, 92%, lacked peat restoration infrastructure such as canal blocks. Less than 2% of concessions had peat restoration infrastructure that was in good condition.

At the same time, peat forests continue to be lost across many concessions.

Pantau Gambut recorded 536,918 hectares (1.33 million acres) of tree cover loss in protected peat areas from 2015 to 2019, of which nearly 80% were within concessions.

While such losses include both human-driven and natural causes of deforestation as well as natural causes, there’s no ruling out “company activities within protected peat areas,” Pantau Gambut said.

Army officers try to extinguish fires in peatland areas in Central Kalimantan.
Army officers try to extinguish fires in peatland areas in Central Kalimantan. Image by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Palm oil companies in the spotlight

Palm oil companies have a long history of burning peat to clear land for their plantations, and hundreds of oil palm concessions were identified among those at high risk of fire.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s leading certification platform, bans all its member companies from using fire in their operations. Since 2017, it’s had a mapping team in place to monitor members’ activities for any sign of burning in their concessions, according to RSPO assurance director Aryo Gustomo.

This, combined with efforts by its members to detect hotspots and address fires within or near their concession boundaries, has resulted in fewer hotspots, the organization said.

According to an RSPO analysis, only 0.4% of total hotspots detected during the peak of Southeast Asia’s haze season in 2019, from Sept. 10 to 16, were within RSPO-certified concessions. The haze episode, caused by large-scale burning of forests in Indonesia, emitted thick smog that traveled all the way to neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, affecting millions of people.

The figures show that certification works, the RSPO said.

However, Greenpeace has called the data misleading, saying the sampling period of one week is too brief to provide a reliable understanding of the relationship between RSPO concessions and fires.

The pool of data that the RSPO used was also too big as the organization counted all fire hotspots on all agricultural land, including pulpwood plantations, which are strongly associated with fires, Greenpeace said. As a result, the RSPO counted a total of 73,508 hotspots for the week, compared to 278 fires in member concessions.

Greenpeace also said the RSPO lacked complete data on its members, as many producer groups don’t declare their subsidiaries or associated companies or concessions to the RSPO.

All these factors resulted in the RSPO underestimating the extent of fires in its members’ concessions, Greenpeace said. The NGO’s own analysis, by contrast, shows a strong association between RSPO members and the 2019 fires.

According to a 2019 report by Greenpeace, 21 of the 30 palm oil producer groups most strongly associated with Indonesia’s perennial concession fires are RSPO members, either in whole or part. Collectively, these RSPO members and their associates account for three-quarters of the fire hotspots detected in the plantation concessions of all 30 groups in the first nine months of 2019, the report says.

A 2016 study published in Environmental Research Letters also looked at the effectiveness of the RSPO in curbing fires, by comparing fires in RSPO-certified concessions and noncertified concessions from 2012-2015.

It found fire activity was significantly lower on RSPO-certified concessions when the likelihood of fire was low — that is, in non-peat landscapes during wetter years. But there was no such association when the likelihood of fire was high — in non-peat landscapes in dry years or on peatlands.

The study therefore made the case that the RSPO is only effective when fire likelihood is relatively low.

A peatland burns during Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze crisis. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Preventing fires through greater transparency

To boost its fire detection and prevention efforts, the RSPO established an online platform in 2021 called the Hotspot Hub. It uses a fleet of four satellites to provide near-real-time information on detected hotspots and potential fires in oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two producers of palm oil.

Hotspots that are confirmed to be within the boundaries of RSPO member concessions trigger an alert sent by email to the concession holders.

“[Through the alert] we ask them to respond and, if needed, to investigate for themselves [whether the fire is in their concession],” Aryo of the RSPO said. “In our mechanism, we don’t investigate unless there’s a complaint.”

The RSPO then collects the responses and shares them with third-party auditors to further verify the actions taken by the RSPO members during the audit process. These actions, once confirmed, are recorded in the RSPO Hotspot Hub.

The aim of the new platform is to increase transparency and accountability, and thus reduce the risk of fires and transboundary haze events, Aryo said. Already it shows that the number of hotspots within RSPO-certified concessions is much smaller than in noncertified concessions.

As of early July 2023, the RSPO Hotspot Hub had detected 33 hotspots within RSPO-certified concessions, compared to 409 in noncertified concessions.

“We will continue to invest in technology and explore new technologies that enhance our performance in the monitoring of fires and our members,” Aryo said.


Banner image: Smoke, allegedly from a fire used for land clearing, billows at an oil palm plantation at a peat swamp in Aceh province, Indonesia, in 2012. Image by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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