The latest dry season in Indonesia has ended with fires reaching a record low throughout the country. As seen in Figure 1, this year’s fire count peaked at 646 fires per day, the lowest since 2001, while the total fire count for the dry season was around a quarter of the usual count, reaching 13,813 (according to NASA statistics under “MODIS C6”). In response, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak personally thanked Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for keeping transboundary haze out of Malaysia. The end of this year’s fire season (between July and October) marks the first time that the season’s total fire count was kept below 15,000 for two consecutive years since 2000. Forest fires break out each year in Indonesia as companies and individual farmers clear land for next year’s crop through slash-and-burn techniques.Comment
Without government intervention, there are two primary factors that contribute to the severity of Indonesia’s fire seasons: how many farmers engage in slash-and-burn and how much rain falls to douse the fires. It is unlikely that within the past two years Indonesian farmers have had a sudden change of heart about their slash-and-burn practices, which have been a long-practiced tradition. Even the impact of tougher laws imposed by the government to regulate forest fires is curbed due to a weak judicial system and a lack of incentive to switch to more expensive land-clearing methods. An increase in rainfall, on the other hand, could help explain the reduction in forest fires. Looking at estimated rainfall statistics for the three provinces where most fires occur (Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan), 21,020 mm of rain fell during this year’s dry season compared to 8,315 mm during the dry season in 2015, which was the year of the worst haze crisis since 1997. As shown in Figure 2, there is a strong correlation (-0.84) between rainfall within these three provinces during the dry season and the severity of that year’s fire season. That being said, the record-low fire count in the past two years has not been met with record-high rainfall levels. In fact, the fire count in 2003 was more than three times higher than this year’s dry season despite having higher levels of rainfall. So while rainfall has been a contributing factor in the low fire count of the past two dry seasons, some credit is still owed to measures taken by the Indonesian Government to alleviate the severity of the fires.
As noted in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, the Indonesian Government has begun a three-year scheme to prevent forest and land fires nationwide in response to the crisis that took place in 2015. This scheme includes strong laws and regulations, the empowerment of local communities, providing incentives not to burn the land, blocking canals to stop peatlands from being drained and the provision of firefighting training and equipment. Preventing the drainage of peatlands is, perhaps, the most important step in the scheme. A policy brief by Wetlands International and Tropenbos International notes various peer-reviewed scientific journals that highlight the severe fire risks associated with the drainage of peat soils. While efforts to prevent another haze crisis are still in their early stages (and the government will certainly need more than a three-year scheme to combat this issue), there has been some semblance of success.
The success of the past two years does not give the Indonesian Government licence to ease efforts to suppress upcoming fire seasons. Nor would the government wish to see fire numbers rise again. Major economic costs, negative health implications and diplomatic tensions over transboundary haze accompany large fire seasons. In addition to these costs, the Indonesian Government also wishes to maintain (or salvage) the reputation of its palm oil industry. The EU, which imported $2.7 billion worth of palm oil from Indonesia in 2016, is adopting tougher regulations on importing the product. This is problematic for Indonesia given that palm oil is often directly associated with the forest fire issue, despite the fact that pulpwood is a much larger contributor to the forest fires. Regardless, as the Indonesian Government tries to win back a significant portion of its palm oil export market, forest fires will need to be kept to a minimum.