Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Fires have flared up in at least 10 provinces in Indonesia, with some of the burning occurring in peatlands.
The burning, including in protected forests, marks the start of the country's dry season and the attendant fires that are set to clear trees and shrubs for agriculture. Government data show at least 173 fire incidents detected in 10 provinces: Aceh, North Sumatra, Riau, Riau Islands, Jambi and South Sumatra on the island of Sumatra; West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan on Borneo; Southeast Sulawesi on Sulawesi; and Papua on the island of New Guinea.
One of the worst-affected regions is Riau, where fires have been detected in 10 of 12 districts, burning 657 hectares (1,620 acres) of land as of early March.
The fires have also affected a number of protected areas in Riau, such as the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu bioreserve. The bioreserve is a 705,271-hectare (1.74-million-acre) area of peatland that's home to two wildlife reserves. It hosts critically endangered species such as Sumatran elephants and tigers.
The burning there occurred in an area with a peat layer 2 meters (6.6 feet), which had been dried out after a two-week spell without rain. This has made it difficult for firefighters to extinguish the fire, according to the Riau provincial conservation agency.
"The lands there are peat," the agency's chief, Suharyono, told local media. "If it rains, [the peat] can be flooded, and during the dry season, one or two weeks [without rain are enough to make the peat] very dry. Just a little tinder is enough to make [the fire] difficult to control by the team on the ground."
The fires are estimated to have burned 100 hectares (250 acres) of the bioreserve, in an area where tropical pitcher plants grow, he added.
Due to the nature of peat, where fires can spread underground and smolder for days, it's nearly impossible to extinguish the fires without rain, according to Azwar Maas, a soil and wetland scientist from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.
Extinguishing a fire on "a hectare [of peat] needs around 500 tons of water," he said during a recent meeting with the country's disaster mitigation agency, BNPB. "So if the fires have already [spread] to 100 hectares [of area], I'm sorry to say but rain is the best therapy."
Another region where the fire season has already started is West Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo. By the end of February, fires were burning up peatlands outside Pontianak, the provincial capital, churning out toxic smog that choked the city for days.
The city recorded levels of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter deemed harmful to human health, that reached "unhealthy" and "hazardous" concentrations during that time.
West Kalimantan Governor Sutarmidji blamed the burning on the unbridled issuance of business licenses, which allow companies to control large areas of land.
"It's because we sell out our forests to businesses," he said at the BNPB meeting.
Sutarmidji cited the case of a company that had paid locals with whom it was involved in a land dispute to clear some of the land. "But the locals did it using fires," he said. "That's the problem. So the locals' hands are being used [by the companies] to make it easy for them to plant and solve the problem [and disputes] with the locals without spending extra money."
Local leaders in other regions where fires have flared up said the burning there tended to be in abandoned parts of large concessions. An analysis by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in 2019 found that 76% of land burning in seven provinces in Indonesia occurred on idle lands, and only 3-3.6% in forested landscapes.
This finding highlights the importance of immediate protection for these areas to prevent a recurrence of intense and wide-scale burning in the future.
The unusual suspects
Authorities in Riau, the province perennially worst-hit by fires during the dry season, has also highlighted the role of oil palm growers in the issue. On March 5, the provincial government summoned representatives of 100 oil palm companies, out of a total of 374 operating in the province, to get them to commit to tackling land and forest fires.
Riau agricultural agency head Zulfadli said all companies should be more active in extinguishing fires. "We're afraid 2021 will be like 2019 [in terms of fires]," he said. "Based on early data, there are already more than 300 fire spots."
Unlike Sutarmidji in West Kalimantan, who said companies there often pay locals to set fires so that they're not blamed for the burning, Riau Deputy Governor Edy Natar Nasution said the private sector in his province helped in fighting fires.
"Most companies actually work together with us in mitigating land and forest fires," he said.
He suggested, instead, that some of the fires in Riau's Meranti Islands district, along Indonesia's maritime border with Malaysia, were likely set by drug traffickers to distract attention from their activities.
"So my suspicion is that at a time when people were busy dealing with land and forest fires, drug dealers tried to divert the attention [away from them] by burning," Edy said. "We've conveyed this to the Riau police and actions were immediately taken by intensifying raids in drug [trading] spots."
This isn't the first time Indonesian officials have pointed to unlikely culprits behind the burning. In 2019, South Sumatra Governor Herman Deru was widely ridiculed after telling local media that the fires were likely started by sunlight reflecting off car windshields or by friction between tree branches. That same year, the president's chief of staff, Moeldoko, called on people affected by the haze to be patient and pray, blaming the disaster squarely on "God." The country's chief security minister, Wiranto, had a different take, blaming smallholders for setting the fires. He then also claimed that there was a political angle to the arson, linking the burning to the elections that took place in April.
Low-tech prevention over high-tech cures
Even as fires continue to break out, officials say the burning season isn't expected to peak until the middle of the year. In anticipation of worsening fires, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry says it will carry out cloud seeding to induce rainfall in vulnerable areas.
Officials say that cloud seeding is superior to conventional water bombing in mitigating forest fires because it can wet peatlands and fill canals and retention basins at a much lower cost. The ministry has credited this technology as one of the reasons for a decline in fire intensity in 2020 compared to the previous year.
Fires last year burned 296,942 hectares (733,800 acres) of land, an 81% drop from the 1.65 million hectares (4.07 million acres) burned in 2019.
"In our joint analysis, it is estimated that this May will be a transition from rainy season to dry season," the forestry ministry's fire mitigation director, R. Basar Manullang, said in a press statement. "Considering that condition, there's a need to do weather modification through cloud seeding in early March."
He added the cloud-seeding efforts would be focused on regions entering the dry season earlier than others, including Riau and West Kalimantan.
Indonesian fire forensics expert Bambang Hero Saharjo from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) said the solution to the burning should be preventive, such as discouraging slash-and-burn practices, rather than dependent on technology.
"Sometimes we're proud of using heavy equipment, as if that's the solution," he said during the meeting with the BNPB. "But the core problem is on the ground. We know that when smoke blankets [the sky], airplanes and helicopters can't fly. They [have to] stay at the airport."
Bambang said he had met representatives of communities in regions like Jambi and West Kalimantan who have managed to establish sustainable livelihoods without clearing land using fires, such as through cultivating honey.
Another solution is to enforce anti-burning laws against all parties without exception, he said, noting that many companies fail to ensure that their concessions and surrounding areas are free of fire risk. Bambang cited a government-sanctioned audit in 2014, in which he was involved. The audit, of 17 companies operating in Riau, showed that none complied with environmental regulations, as they operated in areas of deep peat that should by law be protected, and did not have proper infrastructure and equipment in place to prevent and extinguish fires.
But there's been little to no follow-up on the audit.
"If we want to be done [with the annual fire season], we have to be truly committed," Bambang said. "No matter how big the company is, if it's guilty, it has to be [held to account]. Because that'll give an example to the public."
Since the 2015 fires, rated among the worst man-made disasters in the history of Indonesia, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been ramping up its law enforcement efforts by suing companies with burned concessions.
The ministry has filed lawsuits against 28 companies to date and won judgments from them totaling 19.8 trillion rupiah ($1.37 billion). However, the companies have only paid out 2.5% of that amount.
Grita Anindarini, program director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said it's crucial for the government to collect on these penalties.
"If the government is indeed serious in enforcing the law indiscriminately, and to give a positive impact on law enforcement, then the execution of verdicts that have been won and legally binding has to be prioritized," she said. "This is compounded by the urgent need to immediately restore the environment [that has been degraded by the burning]."