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2023 fires increase fivefold in Indonesia amid El Nino

Mongabay - January 10, 2024

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Fires razed nearly 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of lands and forests in Indonesia in 2023, as the country suffered from unusually scorching weather due to El Nino and burning for new plantations.

Data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry show that as many as 994,313.18 hectares – an area 15 times the size of Jakarta – burned from January to October 2023.

This means the 2023 fire season is the worst since 2019, when fires burned 1.65 million hectares (4.07 million acres).

The size of the 2023 fires represents a fivefold increase from the 204,894 hectares (506,300 acres) of burned lands in 2022. But it still represents a 30.80% decline compared with the same period in 2019, when the El Nino weather phenomenon also brought a prolonged dry season.

"We compared 2023 with 2019 because the El Nino is relatively the same. 2023 was even drier than 2019. But Alhamdulillah [Thank God] we can supress the fires to be significantly less than 2019," the ministry's climate change director-general, Laksmi Dhewanthi, said during an event at the ministry's office in Jakarta on Dec. 27.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said she estimated the size of the fires would grow by the end of 2023, since the figure of 994,313.18 hectares represented fires as of October 2023.

"I estimated that by the end of November 2023, the size of fires would grow by more than 200,000 hectares [494,200 acres]," she said during the event. "But the 200,000 hectares of burning were mostly on savanna."

These fires are usually short-lived, as they last for just two to three days, Siti said.

Another sign that the 2023 fire season is less severe than the one in 2019 is the absence of transboundary haze, Laksmi said. In 2015 and 2019, the fire episodes were so severe that they sent huge volumes of smoke billowing into Malaysia and Singapore.

But in 2023, the Indonesian government didn't detect any transboundary haze episodes, Laksmi said.

The Malaysian government, however, said that Indonesian fires had sent smoke to its neighbor at the end of September, as evidenced by the worsening air quality in several parts of Malaysia.

Laksmi said the government had prepared for the fire season in 2023 through various efforts such as deploying more patrol officers and carrying out cloud seeding to induce rainfall in vulnerable areas.

Preventing fires is crucial for Indonesia's bid to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change because land and forest fires are the largest contributors of emissions in the country, she said.

Source of fires

The provinces that were worst hit by fires in 2023 were South Kalimantan with 187,574 hectares (463,500 acres) of burning, Central Kalimantan with 114,576 hectares (283,100 acres), and South Sumatra with 109,460 hectares (270,500 acres).

Sofyan Ansori, a fire researcher from Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in the United States, said he noticed the intensity of fires in Central Kalimantan in 2023 was more than in 2019.

Sofyan, who is researching community fire governance in Indonesia, particularly in Central Kalimantan, said that in 2023, fires occurred in almost all places where his team did its research, while in 2019, the fires were concentrated only in two research places: Jabiren and Palangkaraya.

The fires also lasted for a long time in 2023, which indicated peat fires where tinders smoldered and spread beneath the surface, he said.

"That's why I said the intensity of this year's fires is greater than 2019," Sofyan said.

He said the fires in Central Kalimantan were more intense last year than 2019 likely because there's an increase in locals burning lands to open up plantations.

Following the great fire episode in 2015, the government imposed a sweeping ban on the use of fires for agricultural purposes, Sofyan said. But this ban wasn't accompanied by an increase in job opportunities, he said.

In Central Kalimantan, only 67% of the working-age population had jobs or were actively seeking employment in 2022, and 51% of the working population was doing so in informal sectors.

"There's a failure [from the government] to create jobs," Sofyan said. "If we look at Central Kalimantan and Sumatra, the number of formal jobs hasn't increased. There's less and less job opportunities."

Meanwhile, people need money to buy food, he said.

"So what can people do when there's no job opportunities and there's a ban on traditional practices [of using fires]? The likeliest thing they do is anything related to natural resources," Sofyan said.

Due to the ban on slash-and-burn practices, a lot of lands are abandoned, he said.

Therefore, locals see these abandoned lands as an opportunity for them to make quick money by burning them and opening up new plantations, Sofyan said.

"But I don't want to reproduce a narrative that the government often uses, where they point fingers to farmers," he said. "What these farmers are doing is not for capital gain. They're barely surviving. In Central Kalimantan, no one is thinking about getting rich by using fires to burn land. They're just trying to survive."

Therefore, the government should avoid blaming locals for the fires, Sofyan said.

"If the locals have other options that are more reasonable to sustain their lives," he said, they'd take those opportunties. "Because farming is not an easy job. It's hard labor. Even if the use of fire is framed as the cheapest way to clear land, it's still a hard and risky work. So imagine the pressure someone feels if they arrived at a point where they feel like they would bear all the risks and labor. Imagine if they have jobs that are more humane."

It's better for the government to focus on cracking down companies whose concessions are burning, Sofyan said.

"What's actually scary is the use of fires by companies," he said. "They have all the gains and means. They could afford [to not use fire], but they're taking advantage of the government's tendency to blame the locals."

Law enforcement

To deter companies from using fires to clear lands and save costs in the process, the environment ministry has been cracking down on companies with fires in their concessions.

In 2023, the ministry's law enforcement department shuttered 47 burning areas, including several oil palm plantations, and issued 353 warning letters to companies. From the 47 areas sealed, 38 of them are companies' concessions, while the rest are managed by locals.

The ministry also filed eight civil lawsuits last year.

Since 2013, the environment ministry has sued 22 companies for fires on their concessions. Fourteen have been found liable and have exhausted all avenues of appeal. In total, these 14 companies have been ordered to pay 5.6 trillion rupiah ($360 million) in fines.

However, the government has faced difficulties in collecting the fines from the 14 companies.

Most of these companies haven't paid their fines, and the ones that have, only started paying their fines many years after their guilty verdicts.

In 2023, three companies had finally paid their fines, according to the environment ministry's law enforcement director-general, Rasio Ridho Sani.

One of them is palm oil company PT Kallista Alam (KA). In 2013, the company was found liable by a court in Aceh province, at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, for burning 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) of peat forest in the Tripa swamp between 2009 and 2012.

The forest is an integral part of the Leuser Ecosystem, one of Indonesia's last best rainforests, and an important Sumatran orangutan habitat.

For the burning, KA was ordered to pay 366 billion rupiah ($30 million at the time, but $23 million at the current exchange rate) in fines, comprised of 114 billion rupiah ($7.3 million) in damages and 252 billion rupiah ($16.2 million) for restoration of the burnt area.

According to the environment ministry, KA had fully paid off the 114 billion rupiah in damages in 2023 – 10 years after the original verdict and 14 after the burning began.

The second is palm oil company PT Waimusi Agroindah, which last year had fully paid the government 19.6 billion rupiah in fines for fires in its concession in South Sumatra in 2015.

The last is palm oil company PT Surya Panen Subur (SPS), which in 2018 the Supreme Court ordered to pay 439.01 billion rupiah ($28.25 million) in fines for fires in its concession in the Tripa swamp in 2012. The fines comprised 136.8 billion rupiah ($8.8 million) in damages and 302.1 billion rupiah ($19.4 million) for restoration of the burnt area.

According to data from the environment ministry, SPS will pay the fine in installments, and has paid 68 billion rupiah ($4.4 million) so far.

Rasio called the payments by these companies "an important breakthrough" for the country's law enforcement against environmental violators.

"This year [2023], three companies had started to pay [their fines]. It took us 6-7 years [to get them to pay]. This can't be done without our consistency, spirit and strong commitment," he said during the event.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/01/2023-fires-increase-fivefold-in-indonesia-amid-el-nino