Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – It was large swaths of degraded and idle land, and not forested land, that accounted for much of the burned area during this year's fire season in Indonesia, according to new findings.
The preliminary analysis by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) contradicts the prevailing narrative that rainforests accounted for the landscape hardest hit by the fires in Indonesia.
"There was no hard evidence to support that notion," said CIFOR landscape ecologist David Gaveau.
Instead, the fires took the biggest toll on abandoned lands, highlighting the importance of immediate protection for these areas to prevent a recurrence of intense and wide-scale burning in the future.
Using high-resolution satellite images from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 over seven provinces, CIFOR found that 76 percent of the burning occurred on idle lands, and only 3 to 3.6 percent in forested landscapes.
That chimes with earlier statements by the governors of the Sumatran provinces of Riau and South Sumatra, the two regions that were among the most affected by this year's fires. They said that abandoned lands, including areas for which concessions had been granted but which had been neglected by the concession holders, accounted for much of the fires in those jurisdictions.
"There are still lands whose status is unclear and they're not managed, making them prone to fires," South Sumatra Governor Herman Deru said recently in Jakarta. "Most of the fires burn these abandoned lands. So there aren't many fires in [plantation] companies' [active] concessions. They're mostly on abandoned lands."
Gaveau said these were areas that used to be forests several years ago, but had been cleared and experienced cycles of burning and recovery, turning them into scrublands peppered with low trees and bushes.
"Though locally present for centuries, forest fires have become a large-scale cause of forest loss since the El Nino drought of 1983," Gaveau told Mongabay. "Once the forest has burned, the increased risk of subsequent fires leads many forests to cycles of repeated burns."
And once these closed-canopy evergreen forests turn into scrublands, they become much more prone to fires.
"Such cycles have replaced millions of hectares of forest with invasive species of easily flammable scrubs, ferns and grasses, the source of today's fires," Gaveau said. "Villagers living on peatlands will tell you that abandoned land is prone to fires."
As a result, fires that start from industrial plantations, including oil palm and pulpwood, can easily spread beyond the intended area of burning because of the large surrounding areas of flammable idle and degraded lands.
CIFOR's analysis shows only 3 percent of the total burned lands were inside oil palm plantations, and 0.4 percent in acacia or rubber plantations or rice paddy fields.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has disputed the figure for total burned area derived in CIFOR's analysis, but not the proportion of affected forest versus abandoned/idle land. CIFOR has acknowledged the need for further peer review on the matter of the total burned area, which its initial analysis put at 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) across seven provinces – almost triple the official figure released by the ministry of just under 6,500 km2 (2,500 mi2).
On Dec. 6 CIFOR took down a blog post on its website, citing the need for peer review.
The findings present a strong case for mass restoration of degraded idle peatlands back into fire-resistant ecosystems, according to CIFOR.
In 2016, President Joko Widodo launched an ambitious program to restore 26,700 square kilometers (10,300 square miles) of degraded peatlands across the country to prevent a recurrence of the particularly devastating fires in 2015. Ideally, this would mean phasing out large swaths of existing oil palm and acacia plantations on drained deep peatlands.
However, the industry has pushed back against this notion, arguing that what's important is to maintain the water table in peatlands by blocking off drainage canals – something that can be done without changing the current dominant land use of oil palm and acacia cultivation.
At the same time, the government and some companies have explored "peat-friendly" cultivation alternatives that don't require intensive draining, including sago and pineapple, as well as agroforestry. But these have been largely written off as far less profitable than palm oil or pulpwood.
CIFOR said there's a need to create an "economy of restoration" to jump-start efforts to restore degraded peatlands.
"We need a paradigm shift," the organization said. "Massive investments in restoration, massive investments from banks to create an economy of restoration. Only by considering nature as part of a vital green infrastructure that must be rebuilt and maintained with adequate investment in tandem with other infrastructures, can we begin to see significant changes."
Anggalia Putri Permatasari, a researcher at the NGO Madani Foundation for Sustainability, said one solution to restoring idle degraded peatlands while also developing the local economy is through the government's social forestry program, which aims to give local communities greater control over lands.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry recently issued a regulation that allows local communities to cultivate peatlands through the social forestry program. There are 2,590 km2 (1,000 mi2) of peat areas that can be distributed to local communities under this scheme.
"The social forestry program can be a way to solve the problem of open access to land," Anggalia said. "Because even if the lands are clearly concessions that are the responsibility of companies, the problem of open access remains. There are even concessions that are in conflict with local people."
Emissions from burning
The fires in Indonesia this year pumped out at least 708 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) – nearly double the 366 million tons generated from the burning in the Brazilian Amazon.
A major factor is the burning of carbon-rich peatlands, and in particular the burning of peatlands within the concessions of oil palm and pulpwood companies.
A new report by Greenpeace shows that Indonesia's plantation industries – principally palm oil and pulpwood – were responsible for 41.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of peatlands in the country from 2015 to 2018.
Their share of emissions amounted to 427 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent during this four-year period – the same as the average annual emissions from 110 coal-fired power plants or 91 million cars, and more than half the annual emissions of the whole of Germany.
And these plantations supply palm oil and paper products to some of the world's best-known brands, including Unilever, Nestle, Mondelez and Procter & Gamble, according to the report.
For instance, between 2015 and 2018, Unilever's suppliers were responsible for accumulated greenhouse gas emissions as a result of peatland fires on their Indonesian concessions that amounted to a quarter of the total emissions produced by the Netherlands in a year, the report says.
Similarly, Nestle's suppliers during this period were responsible for more emissions than Switzerland produces in a year; for Mondelez, it was an amount greater than the annual emissions of New Zealand; and for P&G it was double the emissions produced by Norway.
Greenpeace Indonesia senior forest campaigner Annisa Rahmawati said the findings were a reminder of the toll that many of the consumer products people use daily can take on the climate.
"On Forest Day at the Madrid Climate talks, people around the world will be horrified to learn of the damage the makers of Kit-Kats, Oreos, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Dove soap and Paseo tissue are doing to our climate," she said.
Annisa called on the brands mentioned in the report to stop sourcing from plantations linked to fires.
"Companies parading as 'climate champions,' such as Unilever, are linked to massive greenhouse gas emissions from peatland fires," she said. "These brands need to cut ties with all traders and supplier groups whose fires continue to trade our future for cheap commodities like palm oil."