Time to count cost of Riau’s forest fires

Time to count cost of Riau’s forest fires

19 November 2013

published by www.thejakartaglobe.com

Indonesia —  Indonesia plans to come clean about the scope, causes and costs of this year’s Sumatran forest fire haze, officials promised on the sidelines of an international climate change conference.

“The report, which will be released in December, will reveal what has really happened, we will reveal how large the [carbon] emissions were, what would have happened if we conducted a mitigation plan and what happened without one,” said Farhan Helmy, who is the secretary of the Mitigation Working Group of the National Climate Change Council.

The announcement was made during the 2013 United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change in Warsaw. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, largely through forest clearing and land-use change. The 2013 fires, which were centered on Riau province, are estimated to have been the worst since 1997, and would have contributed a significant uptick in the country’s annual carbon emissions.

Besides contributing to carbon emissions, which are of long-term global concern, the fires had a more immediate effect on Indonesia’s nearest neighbors.

Farhan said the report will estimate the impact of the smoke haze, which blew north and eastwards, causing severe air pollution in Singapore and Malaysia.

“We will announce not only the impact of the haze on the environment but also the financial losses suffered,” Farhan said.

He said an accurate assessment about the forest fires and resulting haze was crucial to determine the country’s overall policy on climate change issues.

“Everybody has been blaming one another since the 1997 forest fires, and there are differences in data, but we need to agree on one thing, [satellite] hotspots do not always indicate there has been a fire in the area,” he said.

Coming up with precise data on which to base an assessment, Farhan said, was difficult. The team had to calculate the exact size of the burned area to estimate the quantity of emissions.

With a precise and comprehensive assessment, he said, the government will be able to track down the culprits behind the fires, many of which were lit as part of illegal land clearing. The fires were not composed of one burning front, but were a collection of many separately lit fires.

“Once we know what happened and how it happened it’s not that difficult to track down who started the fires,” he said.

In July, the National Police named 24 individuals and one corporation as suspects in the Riau fires.

Farhan said the precise assessment will also provide data that can be used by all state institutions in programs related to climate change and disaster mitigation.

“With this data, we can cut all the unnecessary expenses from inefficient projects due to inaccurate assessment,” he said.

Farhan said there were some significant differences between the 1997 and 2013 forest fires.

“In 1997 the fires happened largely due to El Nino, the land became very dry and without anyone setting the fires, the temperature was already very high, so it was a natural anomaly, while in 2013 there were some strong indications that the fires were caused by people,” he said.

Riau has drawn a lot of criticism from the national government, who accused the provincial administration of a slow mitigation response.

The haze also prompted Asean member states to urge Indonesia to immediately ratify the regional anti-smog treaty.

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, brokered in 2002, aims to mitigate cross-border pollution caused by forest fires by obligating parties to prevent burning, monitor prevention efforts, exchange information on the problem and provide mutual assistance. It also required signatories to immediately respond to requests for information.

Indonesia, as the region’s biggest haze contributor, has not ratified the agreement.

Yetti Rusli, special staffer for climate change at the Forestry Ministry, claimed that Indonesia is moving forward with ratifying the treaty, but that educating farmers to drop their traditional slash-and-burn land management practice was a much more pressing issue.

“Taking firm action is one thing, but first we need to ensure that our farmers have a comprehensive understanding that land clearing with burning has very serious consequences — and Indonesia cannot do it alone,” she said.

Yetti said neighboring countries, whose palm oil plantation companies are operating in Indonesia, could easily participate in such education through their Corporate Social Responsibility programs.

“They don’t have to wait for their governments to come up with a national policy, a CSR program is not difficult nor expensive,” she said.

Yetti said ratifying the treaty would force Indonesia to take strict action against farmers who were sometimes not fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

“Once locals have a full understanding about the impact of land clearing by burning, we can move to a stricter approach.”

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