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El Nino gets blamed: but Indonesian inertia is equally responsible for the fires

Far Eastern Economic Review - October 9, 1997

John McBeth, Jakarta &150; Almost nightly on Indonesian television, thousands of firefighters armed with little more than water-filled backpacks are shown trying to beat back the blazes that are blanketing Southeast Asia in smoke. Growing alarm has led Malaysia to send 1,200 firefighters to join the assault and Japan to offer pumping equipment and waterjet shooters. It's a frantic effort, but to no avail: The battle is already lost.

The fires &150; mostly started by companies clearing land for plantations have spread to parched peat bogs in East Sumatra and Kalimantan. Peat fires can't simply be doused with water; only a rising water table can put them out. That will come only with the long-overdue monsoons. Until then, say forestry experts, the Indonesian government can only try to minimize the consequences of the worst burning season on record and make plans to head off a similar disaster next year.

Dennis Dykstra, deputy director-general for research at the Bogor-based Centre for International Forestry Research, warns that with the drought-inducing El Nino weather phenomenon expected to intensify, 1998 could be even worse. Prevention of another smoky haze will require far tougher enforcement of forestry regulations, more comprehensive monitoring of land-clearing practices, better coordination among ministries, improved planning of plantation expansion, and a greater willingness by government officials to take on politically powerful businessmen. Based on this year's experience, the prospects that Indonesia's leaders will muster the political will to take such measures seem hazy at best.

But at least the government now acknowledges that it has a problem. "In 1994, they wouldn't accept criticism or offers of assistance," says a senior Asean diplomat. "This time, it's a whole new ball game. They now realize the real proportions of the disaster." So much so that President Suharto took the unprecedented step of apologizing to Indonesia's neighbours, reaffirmed a ban on burning forest to clear land, and made it clear he expected his ministries to enforce it.

One reason that realization came so late lies in the Asean belief that members should avoid interfering in each other's affairs. While transboundary issues such as narcotics and piracy have received passing attention, the environment was largely off the agenda until 1994, when Indonesian fires caused severe smog over Singapore and parts of Malaysia.

Yet since then there have been only two meetings of a so-called Haze Technical Task Force, set up by Asean environmental ministers in 1995 to consult on ways to address the problem. Asean officials admit that the task force can't do much. As one Thai official said in Jakarta: "Indonesia is where the action has to be taken." Asked why they haven't made that point more forcefully to Indonesia, an Asian diplomat in Kuala Lumpur explains: "It's part of the Javanese culture. You never tell them they're wrong. They can be very prickly if you tell them it's their fault. There may be a backlash."

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million hectares have been torched this year, much of it forest that has already been logged. The Fund's Jakarta-based forestconservation officer, Jim Schweithelm, says that with enforcement of forestry regulations almost nonexistent, there are signs that the fires have also spread to secondary and primary jungle. In addition to peat fires, perpetually smouldering subsurface coal seams have been responsible for fires in East Kalimantan's 1,400-squarekilometre Kutai Forest Reserve.

Much of the blame for the fires is falling on companies clearing land for new oil-palm estates by burning forest and brush. Since 1985, the total area of oilpalm plantations has grown from 600,000 to 2.2 million hectares, about a third of that belonging to four politically well-connected conglomerates and the rest shared between state enterprises (440,000 hectares) and smallholders (760,000 hectares).

And there's more to come: 3.3 million hectares are to be planted over the next two to three years as part of the government's drive to become the world's biggest palm-oil producer by 2005. Large areas are also being cleared by pulp and paper companies anxious to reduce their reliance on natural forests by developing their own sustainable resources. Forestry Ministry projections show industrial pulpwood and timber plantations growing from 1.8 million hectares in 1995 to 2.3 million by the end of the decade.

Satellite photographs reveal another culprit. Many of the fires in Central Kalimantan are in a 1-million-hectare expanse of marshland that Suharto has personally designated for rice-growing and other cash crops. Experts say the draining of the swamp has exposed the peat to sunlight and made it particularly flammable, with prevailing winds sending particle-filled smoke over Sarawak to the north.

More than 170 companies are suspected of starting the fires, but typically none have been named. It was only on September 29 that a group of timber tycoons broke a long industry silence to announce a $6.4 million fund to help victims of the haze in Sumatra and Kalimantan. They also said they would deploy tractors, bulldozers and heavy equipment to prevent the fires from spreading.

The government, for its part, has begun to do something about the fires only in the past three weeks. But lack of coordination among ministries has compounded by influence peddling and a critical logistics shortage that makes monitoring piecemeal. Azwar Anas, the coordinating minister for social welfare and head of the National Committee for Disaster Management, has often sought to play down the extent of the disaster, laying all the blame on El Nino. Government data on the areas affected have been well below estimates by non-governmental organizations, despite the available satellite imagery. Notes one government official: "People are trying to cover themselves."

In the weeks leading up to the presidential ban on burning, Environmental Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja was a lone voice, sometimes indirectly criticizing his fellow ministers for not doing more. Even Indonesia's usually timid newspapers have been harshly critical of the failure to enforce the ban and provide better coordination. Most of the criticism has been directed at large, well-connected companies for either overriding the authority of local officials or paying them to look the other way. The Muslim-orientated daily Republika said in a recent editorial that the crisis reveals just how poorly Indonesia's forests are managed. "Short-term economic interests are being made the priority," it complained, "while sustainable management of our environment is being ignored."

That's a view shared by World Bank forestry consultant Jim Douglas, who says enforcement has become so lax that many companies are simply clearing out regenerative forest, which is only meant to be selectively logged. "We'd be suggesting to the government that the private sector agrees on some sort of model of good practice on concession operations," he says. "Clearly, the pace of plantation development is now such that it's difficult for the Forestry Ministry to keep up."

Little wonder. A 1990 World Bank report noted that half of all Forestry Ministry staff are stationed in Java, which has less than 2% of all forested land. "Forestry officials in the outer islands rely largely on concessionaire reports to determine annual allowable cut and this, in turn, leads to . . . a tendency to ignore good logging practices and breaches of regulations," the report said.

A 1990 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development also said that the Forestry Ministry should be strengthened, its staff increased and redeployed, and officials given the means to carry out its work without depending on concessionaires. But industry sources say little has changed since then.

There have also been suggestions in the local media that the country's Reafforestation Fund, a nest-egg of levies collected from forest concessions, could somehow be used to battle the haze. The government hasn't yet responded.

The fund which stood at $660 million in 1994-97is meant to develop timber estates, but its disbursements have often been controversial. In 1994, Suharto approved a $178 million loan from the fund for the state-run aircraft maker IPTN. More recently, it was the source of a $108 million loan for a pulp and paper mill in East Kalimantan. The owner: Suharto confidant Mohamad "Bob" Hasan, probably the most influential of Indonesia's timber barons.

Steve Strand, a New Zealand-based forestry expert, says the only way to avoid another Southeast Asian smoke-out is to force Indonesian companies to use only mechanical and chemical land-clearing methods. But it will be difficult convincing Indonesian firms to pay as much as $200 per hectare for something they now get for the price of a matchstick.

Nor will it be easy to convince the government that it has to take a more systematic approach in its push to expand plantations. "What they haven't done is sit down and plan out what areas to clear in a controlled way," says Strand. "They don't appear to have any clear development plan; they've just rushed in without thinking things through. It's a real cowboy approach."