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Its reputation tarnished, Indonesia tries to prevent next fires

by Fidelis E. Satriastanti | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 September 2013 10:45 GMT

An aerial view of burning lands in Palalawan district in Riau province June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Fikih Nauli

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Runaway burning of forests and peatland violate forest protection deals and threaten the country’s emissions reductions pledges, as well as annoying neighbours in the region

JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The devastating fires that scorched peatland and forests in Sumatra earlier this summer have mostly been put out, and the smoke haze that caused international disruption has largely dissipated.

But government officials in Indonesia are warning of a threat of further disruption from fires and thick smoke as the summer’s peak approaches, and environmental activists are pushing for better monitoring of fires to prevent such disasters from recurring.

In June, thick smoke resulting from peatland and forest burning blanketed Sumatra, focusing unwelcome international attention on Indonesia over the following month, particularly as the haze drifted and badly affected Malaysia and Singapore.

The fires were initially set as controlled burns to clear forest and peatland for farming, but this year has been particularly dry and hot, and many fires spread out of control. Peat fires are especially difficult to put out because they largely burn below ground.

The Indonesian government declared a national disaster, and authorities succeeded in extinguishing the fires by dropping water from airplanes and seeding clouds to produce rain. However, smoke was still affecting central Riau province, in the centre of Sumatra, until early September, and many Riau residents have complained of respiratory health problems.

Authorities are still investigating who is responsible for the fires. Land burning by small-scale farmers is allowed in Indonesia at certain times of year, but activists allege that big companies paid people to burn peatlands to clear the land for plantations. Media reports suggest that at least 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land have been burned.


Attention is now turning to how fires can be prevented in the future.

“It is very easy now to locate hotspots (areas that are warmer and dryer than their surroundings and thus vulnerable to catching fire) through satellite imaging,” said Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics, a Jakarta-based nongovernmental organisation focusing on forestry issues. Effendi argues that this technology can help authorities focus their prevention efforts where they are most needed.

Referring to a 2011 presidential decree on coordinating fire prevention efforts among government officials, known as Inpres, Effendi said, “The Inpres would be very helpful if (it was) being effectively implemented, especially by local government officials such as governors and bupatis (head of districts). We appreciate efforts of putting out fires by local communities and officials, but that is conventional action – putting out fires instead of preventing them. These fires happened (annually) since 1997 but there were no changes.”

This year’s fires were a lesson for the Indonesian government, Effendi added, as officials discovered burning in forest areas supposedly protected by Indonesia’s moratorium on logging.

“It is not enough to just impose a moratorium on logging permits, but (it is necessary) to keep an eye on those areas,” he said. 


Kiki Taufik, forest campaign manager of Greenpeace Indonesia, said that commitments made by the central government, such as a 26 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and the logging moratorium, had not enforced by mandated action for local governments.

“There were initiatives from the local governments of Central Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, and Jambi, for instance, to support these commitments, but there should be a stronger action from central government to impose their policies at local levels,” Taufik said.

Taufik also noted that land in logging moratorium areas is still being burned.

“There’s a lack of political will from the government for its own commitments,” he said.

Arief Yuwono, a deputy minister for environmental degradation control and climate change, said that local task forces have been formed to tackle land and forest fires and raise awareness about the risks.

The number of fire-vulnerable hotspots in Sumatra is still growing, with 488 recorded on the island by the end of August, particularly in Riau.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, said that October would be the peak for land and forest burning in Sumatra, either by individuals or groups.

“There should be strict law enforcement to control these burnings,” Nugroho said, adding that local governments and the ministries of forestry, agriculture and the environment, as well as the police, should be involved.

Yuwono said that the raging fires from land and forest areas, mainly peatlands, had inflicted social, health and environmental costs on the island, but also on Indonesia’s targets for emission reduction.

“We have yet to count how much emissions (there have been) from these fires but it’s definitely affecting the target of 26 percent,” he said. “We were supposed to gain benefits (from protecting forests). Instead we lose a lot from these fires.”

Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.

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