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Indonesia Is Finally Arresting People Burning Down Its Forests

Fires are burning in six provinces to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, but President Joko Widodo has ordered authorities to clamp down on the illegal practice.
September 17, 2015, 10:10pm
Photo by Adi Weda/EPA

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Indonesian authorities are cracking down on companies believed to be responsible for massive fires that have left a choking haze over much of the country and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Fires are burning in six provinces, shrouding the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in acrid smog and blowing northward into Malaysia and Singapore. Nearly all are believed to have been set deliberately to clear land for palm oil and paper and paper plantations, a longstanding but widely criticized practice.

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"This involves the clearing and destruction of a lot of important natural habitats," said James Anderson, communications manager for the World Resources Institute's Forest Program. "But also, just as important, it's a real public health crisis."

Many fires are set to burn off peat, which gives off a toxic smoke. Indonesia's environment ministry says more than 12,000 people have been sickened by the resulting haze, while to the north, Singapore has warned people to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and Malaysia urged citizens to stay inside whenever possible and closed schools in the capital Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas.

"The administration is under incredible pressure to act on this," Anderson told VICE News. "The effect this has on their health, their kids' health, and their ability to do business is really severe, and there's a lot of people clamoring for action on this."

Walaupun luas hutan terbakar tahun ini sudah menurun, tidak ada toleransi bagi pembakar hutan -Jkw pic.twitter.com/xHVcrKeNtg

— Joko Widodo (@jokowi) September 6, 2015

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in a tweet that despite a decline in forest fire activity, there is no tolerance for the culprits. 

This week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo demanded "firm legal action" to stop the fires and prevent the same problem from recurring next year, the Indonesian news agency Antara reported. Police have arrested at least half a dozen people and identified 140 others from 17 companies as suspects in the fires, while the country's national police chief has urged the government to bar the companies from receiving new government permits. Meanwhile, thousands of government troops have been dispatched to help put out the blazes, Antara reported.

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Gemma Tillack, head of the Rainforest Action Network's agribusiness campaign, said the arrests are "a very strong indication" that the president — commonly known as Jokowi — "is getting serious around enforcing the laws on banning the use of fire to clear land."

"He has been on the ground witnessing firsthand the impacts of unsustainable development since taking office," Tillack said. "I think this shows that he is definitely committed to taking a more hands-on approach to tackling the impacts of the palm sector in Indonesia."

Indonesian authorities deployed 1,000 soldiers in South Sumatra to fight fires. (Photo by Adi Weda/EPA)

Schools were closed in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, amid worsening haze caused by fires in neighboring Indonesia. (Photo by Ahmad Yusni/EPA)

The use of fire to clear land is cheap, and it's grown "despite the stack of corporate commitments" to give it up, Tillack said. The resulting carbon emissions are comparable to the output of 145 typical American coal-burning power plants — and according to WRI, that's more than half of Indonesia's carbon footprint.

"There's both a cause and effect relationship with the climate," Anderson said. "The forests of Indonesia are a huge carbon sink. The primary forests especially have high carbon stocks in the wood, on the forest floors, and also the soils, which are often overlooked."

Draining peat swamps and burning off the remaining peat releases a huge amount of carbon in particular, raising the risk of "a very vicious feedback loop."

"When that carbon is release to the atmosphere, it's going to be driving more climate change. And that's going to be driving further cycles of extreme weather that will lead to more and more fires," he said.

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Related: 'It Must Be Stopped': Indonesia's New President Vows to End the World's Worst Deforestation

Restoring forests is a large part of Indonesia's draft proposal for reducing emissions, part of the upcoming UN climate summit in Paris that's aimed at limiting climate change to a global average of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). And the country's supreme court just upheld a $26 million fine against a palm grower caught illegally burning peatland, Tillack said.

But Anderson cautioned that it has been tough for prosecutors to make cases against companies in the past.

"Often the land granted to companies to manage can be very widespread, and often the land may be only partially managed by them and partly managed elsewhere in the area by communities," he said. "Figuring out who set the fire and who's responsible for the land that's burning is really difficult."

On the Line: Robert S. Eshelman Discusses Climate Change

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl