There have been recent media reports of fire outbreaks in Indonesia and warnings of a tough dry season ahead. In response to the fires, the Indonesian Government has stepped up water bombing procedures with the Malaysian Government already offering assistance. These steps have been taken to ensure that there is no repeat of the 2015 South-East Asian haze crisis which had a significant impact on health, environment and diplomacy in the region.
At this stage, it is difficult to tell if there is cause for concern. From January to July this year, there were approximately six thousand fire alerts (only counting fires detected by the MODIS C6 instrument aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites) across Indonesia, according to data taken from the US NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System. That is significantly less than the amount of fire alerts during the same periods in 2016 (11,393) and 2015 (19,440). It does not set the precedent for this year’s fire season, however, given that the seasonal fires generally begin to pick up in mid- to late- August and peak during September through to October, as seen in Figure 1. For example, while there were only 8,047 more fire alerts from January to July 2015 than in the same months of 2016, the difference had quickly escalated to 145,040 by the end of October, making 2015 one of the worst fire seasons on record in Indonesia. A significant factor was the El Niño phenomenon, which resulted in significantly less rainfall from July to October than in previous years. Rainfall for the 2017 dry season, which so far has been at similar levels to 2016, will also play a significant role.
Efforts by the Indonesian Government to prevent burn offs before they begin could be seen as a factor behind the low fire count experienced so far this year. As noted by Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo, the Indonesian Government is undertaking a three-year scheme to prevent forest and land fires nationwide. In an interview with Forest News, Purnomo adds that the scheme aims to do this through 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 firefighting training and equipment. There was some visible progress in 2016, when a moratorium on the conversion and clearing of peatland and primary forest was extended, the Badan Restorasi Gambut (Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG) was established to monitor and restore peatland, and a sharp increase in the number of individuals arrested due to connections with forest fires was seen as the enforcement of tougher new laws introduced in 2014.
There are, however, a number of limitations to the current government initiatives. The peatland moratorium has had a negligible impact on the overall rate of fires since being introduced in 2011. Tougher laws on companies and individuals responsible for forest fires will have a negligible impact when constrained by a weak judicial system. The BRG, while a positive initiative, is also very limited in its ability to convince large companies and smallholders to give up their land for restoration. Indonesian farmers will continue to practice the slash-and-burn technique for land clearing for as long as there is no incentive to use alternative methods and little consequence for continuing the practice. Subsidising the use of alternative, less harmful methods could provide an incentive for farmers to abandon slash-and-burn.
Aside from the numerous health and economic costs associated with the seasonal fires in Indonesia, the government may be especially anxious about this year’s fire season given the European Union (EU) resolution on palm oil and rainforest deforestation adopted in April 2017. As noted in a Strategic Weekly Analysis, the resolution threatens Indonesian palm oil exports by introducing strict standards on imports of the product into the EU. In 2016, Indonesia exported $2.7 billion worth of palm oil to EU countries, which made up fourteen per cent of total Indonesian palm oil exports. Despite dedicated lobbying by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesian palm oil will struggle to meet the environmental standards required and a bad fire season this year may be enough to put the nail in the coffin for Indonesian palm oil exports to the EU.