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The Haze Is Back

It's once again forest fire season in Indonesia. Why can't we get this under control?

by Adi Renaldi
27 July 2017, 10:15am

A soldier tries to extinguish a peatland fire in West Aceh. Image: Antara Foto/Syifa Yulinnas via Reuters

Is Southeast Asia heading toward another haze crisis? Indonesian officials raised concerns earlier this week that dry season conditions were prime for another region-wide crisis as more than 170 "hot spots"—areas where satellite images show forest fires burning—were spreading across the country's palm oil belt. The belt, which runs from Sumatra to the Kalimantan provinces, is routinely the site of the kinds of illegal slash-and-burn clearing that sparked the 2015 haze crisis.

That crisis was so bad that the spokesman for Indonesia's meteorology agency (BMKG) called the haze "a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions." Indonesia lost enough forest to cover the entire island of Bali five times over. At least 19 people died, and 500,000 fell ill as choking haze spread as far afield as Thailand and the Philippines. In the end, it cost an estimated $16 billion USD in losses.

Today, the haze has already reached urban centers like the Meulaboh, a city of more than 70,000 in West Aceh where at least 23 people have already been hospitalized with respiratory illnesss. Five provinces declared a state of emergency this week as 18 helicopters took flight, dumping water on forest fires so hot that firefighters could only approach from the air.

"The BNPB [disaster agency] deployed two water bomb helicopters to put out fires in West Aceh," agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho tweeted. "Helicopters are the main solution because of the difficulty of accessing the land."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised to get tough on illegal forest fires after the 2015 haze crisis became an international issue. He issued a moratorium on peatland conversion, and threatened to revoke the business permits of any company caught setting fire to forest land. Hundreds of hot spots totaling more than 1,600 hectares of burning forest had appeared inside corporate-owned concessions during the 2015 crisis, but it's been difficult to assign blame.

Green groups typically find the hot spots and publicize their locations on corporate land, but then the companies themselves explain that local farmers, not those employed by the oil palm firms, set the fires. Local farmers, a group known in industry-speak as "smallholders," were again behind this year's fires, explained Muhammad Nur, the director of the Aceh chapter of the environmental watchdog Walhi.

"We haven't found any corporate involvement in the fires," Nur told local media. "Only local residents."

Why is it so difficult to stamp out slash-and-burn clearing in Indonesia? Well, for starters, it's cheaper. Small-scale farmers typically operate on razor-thin margins with small work crews and little industrialization. Even the smallest crew can set fire to scrub land and clear a patch of forest that would take weeks to clear by hand.

Then there's the difficulties in enforcing the law on the ground. There are 1.5 million of these so-called smallholders operating in Indonesia, according to most estimates. They largely operate with little government oversight and are susceptible for price changes or the negative impacts of stricter regulations. The central government wants to enroll these small-scale farmers in its own sustainable palm oil program, but as of April, only 12 percent of Indonesia's oil palm plantations were enrolled in the state's ISPO program.

Meanwhile, the Jokowi administration's moratorium on land clearing and peatland conversion favors corporations and plasma farmers (a term that means smallholders operating within corporate concessions) over independent farmers, according to experts said.

"Looking at the facts in the field, the moratorium doesn't seem all that successful," Fatilda Hasibuan, the program manager for Walhi's forest campaign, told VICE. "One of the most unfortunate things is the land swap scheme, which only serves to give privileges to corporations."

There's also a lack of coordination on the ground, and spotty oversight of agribusiness corporations and local governments in resource-rich regions.

So what's the point of extending the moratorium? Not much if it's just more of the same, said Annisa Rahmawati, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia. Some 2.7 million hectares of land isn't even included on the government's moratorium maps, she said.

And what about the 400,000 or so hectares of peatland that was supposed to be restored by Jokowi's peatland restoration agency this year? How's that going? No one knows, Annissa said. There are no transparency measures in place that allow NGOs and nonprofits, who have historically been the engines of change and accountability in Indonesia, to monitor the government's progress.

"There has never been an official report from the government regarding the moratorium's progress," she said. "This is difficult since the government is not being transparent about the moratorium. Fires will keep happening as long as good peatland management doesn't exist."

But officials in Indonesia and Singapore were quick to play down concerns that we were heading into Haze Crisis: Part 2. Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister told Masagos Zulkifli flew to affected areas in Indonesia earlier this month, where he met with local elected leaders and members of the Jokowi administration.

"President Jokowi had personally carried out meetings with the various apparatus of the government locally and nationally to ensure the occurrence of haze that happened in 2015 does not happen again," the minister told local media.

Today, Masagos said the coming rains would surely douse the fires before the haze reached Singapore. "We hope that with more rain, there will be less haze episodes that come to us," he told local media.

And the Indonesian government said that while the hot spots have returned, the fires are still far less severe than they were in the recent past. It's a sign to some that the government's efforts are paying off, said Wiranto, the country's top national security official.

"The result has been extraordinary," Wiranto told local media. "This year, the hotspots that occur—previously there were thousands, but now [there are] only hundreds."

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Indonesia haze crisis