Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Indonesia's land and forest fires burned a greater area this year than in 2020, with most of the fires occurring in West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara, two provinces that were until recently not major sites of burning.
As of the end of November, fires had burned 353,222 hectares (872,831 acres) of land, an area twice the size of London. This is up nearly 16% from the 296,942 hectares (733,759 acres) burned during the whole of 2020, according to official data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The largest increase in fires occurred in the provinces of West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) and East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), which until a few years ago accounted for only a fraction of total fires.
This year, fires in NTB burned 100,908 hectares (249,349 acres), nearly a third of the national total, and more than triple the area burned in the province last year. In NTT, the figure was higher, at 137,297 hectares (339,268 acres) were burned, up nearly 20% from the 2020 figure.
This makes NTB and NTT the top two provinces in terms of size of fires for two years in a row. Together, fires in the two provinces accounted for two-thirds of the total burned area in Indonesia this year; in 2020, the two provinces were home to half of the total burned area.
In 2019, which saw a particularly bad episode of fires fanned by an El Nino system bringing drier-than-usual weather conditions, the worst-hit regions were the Bornean provinces of Central Kalimantan, with 134,227 hectares (331,682 acres) burned, and West Kalimantan, at 127,462 hectares (314,965 acres).
Among the areas burned by the fires this year was part of an island within NTT's Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to around 2,800 Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis).
Raffles B. Panjaitan, a fire expert working as an adviser to the minister of environment and forestry, said the scale of the burning in NTT and NTB was unprecedented.
"In the past two years, the fires in NTT and NTB increased to more than 100,000 hectares each," he said at an event in Jakarta on Dec. 23. "Before that, it was less than 50,000 hectares each."
Dry spells and scrubland
Raffles said fires in the two provinces had received less attention than those in the perennial hotspots of Sumatra and Borneo, where slash-and-burn practices have routinely stoked massive blazes whose toxic haze has drifted as far as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
"Maybe we need to see [what's happening in NTB and NTT] because until now, there's no one controlling [the fires there]," he said. "There's no firefighter brigades directly in charge."
Bambang Hero Saharjo, a leading expert on forest fires from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said fires in NTB and NTT are not a new phenomenon, although the scale this time around is. The burning, typically of scrubland, isn't as intense as in Sumatra and Borneo, which have vast areas of carbon-rich peat, he added.
NTB and NTT, Indonesia's southernmost provinces, are also the country's driest. They experience less rainfall than the country's western region, and often go through dry spells lasting more than 60 days. In 2017, NTT didn't see rain for more than 100 days; the district of East Sumba in NTT suffered from 249 days without rain in 2019.
And when fires to do break out there, the hilly terrain makes it difficult for firefighters to reach burning areas, Bambang said.
"The areas burned are not productive lands, and they are hard to reach [for firefighters]," he told Mongabay. "And the [firefighting] facilities are not optimum yet. Therefore, fire mitigation efforts are not optimum yet."
More funding needed to fight fires
With the scale of fires increasing in NTB and NTT, Bambang called for greater efforts to mitigate burning in the two provinces.
"The more land that's burned, the higher the emissions," he said. "Therefore, it's only appropriate for stakeholders to pay attention to these two provinces."
He called on local governments to boost the capacity of the firefighting brigades and to replace the easily combustible scrub with more fire-resistant crops. "Lastly, law enforcement against the perpetrators of land and forest fires needs to be intensified," Bambang said.
He also called for increased funding from the central government for firefighting and fire prevention efforts.
Raffles said the forestry ministry's budget for fire mitigation had been slashed in the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The budget ... has been miniscule," he said. "It's 38 billion rupiah [$2.67 million]. In the past, it used to be 100 billion rupiah [$7 billion] and thus the coordination [for firefighting] at the local level was stronger."
Raffles said he hoped there would be a budget increase for 2022, warning that "there's no way [firefighting efforts] can be mobilized in the field if there's no budget."
Bambang agreed that fires could get worse without a budget increase to fight them.
"In my opinion, if future fire mitigation efforts are not much different from 2021, then there won't be a significant decrease in fires, especially with a budget for fire mitigation that's increasingly reduced because it's used for the COVID-19 pandemic instead," he said. "If there's no budget, or limited budget, then it will hamper fire mitigation efforts. The implication is uncontrollable fires."
Raffles said the ministry wanted to avoid such a scenario, given that forest fires in Indonesia tend to come under global scrutiny.