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As Indonesia's Fires Rage Yet Again, Experts Call for a Long-Term Solution

Haze from the annual forest fires — deliberately set to clear land for agriculture — are causing massive amounts of pollution, sickening people, and endangering wildlife.
October 7, 2015, 6:10pm
Photo by Rony Muharrman/EPA

As deliberately started fires continue to burn out of control in Indonesian forests and peatlands — and send a hazardous haze across the region — scientists and environmental activists say the Indonesian government needs to tackle the fires' underlying causes instead of treating them as one-off disasters.

Fires burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan over the past three months have closed schools, left tens of thousands ill with respiratory disease, and sent air pollution soaring to dangerous levels in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia. More than 21,000 people have been deployed to fight the fires, according to Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency (BNPB), and the government has finally started cracking down on companies believed to be responsible — but according to activists, its approach is too reactive.

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"What I see so far is that we are responding to forest fires like we respond to a disaster — a tsunami or flood," said Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesian forest campaign at Greenpeace International. The underlying reasons why the fires are started, he said, are not being addressed.

Experts agree that finding a long-term solution to the fires, which happen annually in Indonesia, will be a complex task. Effective prevention is being hampered by a shortage of spatial data, in addition to poverty, patronage networks, and the government's reluctance to give the country's peatlands full protection. In late September, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said it would take three years before the issue could be solved — a timeframe likely to frustrate many despite being deemed reasonable by experts.

Among the most pressing issues is determining who is responsible for the fires. Most are deliberately lit to clear land for agriculture, authorities said, and the origin of the majority of blazes can be pinpointed by satellite mapping. But land-use data is incomplete and unsynchronized between different levels of government, meaning policy makers and law enforcers don't have an accurate picture of who is lighting the fires.

Although satellite mapping shows many of the hotspots are in pulpwood, logging, and palm oil concessions, 62 percent of fire alerts over the past month have come from outside concessions, according to Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and alert system.

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"The data is more complete inside concessions — we know who the companies are," said Hidayah Hamzah, a research analyst with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Indonesia. "But outside the concessions it is difficult to determine who is responsible for the fires because there is a lack of data."

Hamzah said establishing a map for smallholder plantations — areas typicaly less than 25 hectares that don't require plantation permits — and unifying other land use maps would help with monitoring and enforcement.

Since the fires started in July, Widodo has pledged to step up legal action. Last month, Indonesia arrested seven corporate executives in connection with the fires, including a senior executive from Bumi Mekar Hijau, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). Widodo's tough stance has been widely praised, but Dr. Herry Purnomo, a professor at Bogor Agricultural University, said tackling underlying causes motivating both large and small players is just as important.

Above all, Purnomo said, the government needs to dismantle "patronage networks" — ties between local elites and companies in which elites connected to plantation companies act as advisors and provide protection.

"This patronage influences policy and decision-making processes in land allocation and uses, as well as the effort to firmly execute any environmental standards and laws," he said.

Analysts also say the government needs to address the socio-economic drivers of the fires in local communities.

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"The cost of clearing land [with fire] is very cheap, maybe $2 every hectare, compared with doing it by mechanical tools," said Andhyta Utami, who is also at WRI Indonesia. She says there need to be incentives put in place for small farmers not to use fire to clear land, and for local communities to be taught about the adverse effects of burning.

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GFW data showed more than half of the fires in the past month have been burning on peatland. Rich in carbon, peatland can smolder for months when drained for agricultural conversion. Greenpeace's Maitar says that stopping fires long-term will require the protection of peatland, and that a 2009 presidential decree banning any planting on peatland that goes deeper than 10 feet is being ignored.

The government has deployed helicopters to water-bomb hotspots, and has ordered canals be built to prevent peatland drying out. The BNPB estimated close to $34 million had already been spent fighting the fires, and authorities appear destined to spend more.

Follow Harry Pearl on Twitter: @Harry_Pearl