Indonesia — Indonesia is gearing up for an unusually dry season that could spark forest fires worse than last year, warn environmental groups.
In June of 2013 major blazes generated smoke that blanketed parts of Singapore and Malaysia in haze, causing pollution to soar to record levels.
Fires, often set to clear land for development, happened again in February due to extreme drought in central Sumatra, the heart of Indonesias behemoth $20 billion palm oil industry and home to some of its biggest pulp and paper companies.
In the midst of the burning, the World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank, launched an online forest monitoring system that relies on satellites to track fires and uses crowdsourcing to analyze the imagery.
The organization has now opened an office in Jakarta to better expand its operations. Nigel Sizer, director of the WRIs forests program, recently shared a few thoughts on the fires and what can be done to stop them.
On the coming fire season:
This years fire season might well be much worse than last years. Its starting about now and is likely to pick up in July and August. This year were dealing with a mild el Nino, which means it will be dryer than usual. So the meteorologists are saying, get ready.
On how WRI will be watching:
Were getting ready for this by publishing fire alerts every day across the entire world. Starting in the coming weeks, when we detect fires in Sumatra, we will be turning on a group of private satellites owned by a company called Digital Globe, which will give us, within hours, 50-centimeter resolution photographs of those fires. [At that resolution] they can see a large plant pot on your front porch from hundreds of kilometers up in space.
Together with some interesting social media tools around that, well be asking Singaporeans and Malaysian to analyze that imagery through an online crowdsourcing platform that allows them to look at the imagery and identify whats going on. That will get put together and shared with the authorities to help with disaster response. This is the same company that led the search for the downed Malaysia Airlines plane [Flight 370]. Its the same company, same kind of imagery and theyre now working with us to support the fires here.
On satellite imagery as evidence:
This is material of sufficient quality that it may be useful in court cases. The court will decide, but quite a few people are assuming that the quality of this imagery and its precision will be useful potentially for law enforcement efforts. It will also be useful for efforts to understand why these fires are happening and why there have been so many. We dont have clear answers to those questions despite all the concern.
On the possible reasons for the fires:
These are areas where there has been very intense and rapid development of the plantation industry, significant influxes of people, degradation across those landscapes, significant conflict with local communities, a lot of people working around the margins of the major companies on land that they are claiming and fire is a key tool those people are going to be using.
On whether the government is ready:
We know the government is making preparations. We know some of the very large companies are making significant preparations as well, but the root causes that are driving this behavior on the ground have not been addressed, and thats very clear. A lot of these fires have been started by small companies that are operating illegally to develop small palm oil estates that then feed into the supply chains of larger companies. And a lot of them are being started by very small farmers, legally and illegally, who have no alternative but to use fire to clear land to plant.
So unless theres a concerted effort on the ground to provide alternatives to the local communities on the one hand and to get serious about law enforcement with these small companies that operate under the radar, then were going to see fires and were going to see lots of fires.
On political leadership on forest issues:
There hasnt been a complete absence of leadership. Theres a moratorium [a ban that prohibits new licenses from being issued for land clearing] on an area the size of Japan. The implementation of that has been of variable effectiveness. But the fact that was implemented in the face of very significant industry opposition from some extraordinarily powerful people and was then renewed and extended by the president consumed substantial political capital and was a very public process and really set this president apart from many of his predecessors on this issue.