Indonesia — The slash-and-burn clearing of forests to make way for plantations topped Indonesias list of environmental problems this year, with several major forest and land fires in Sumatra once again undermining the countrys fight against deforestation while generating choking clouds of smoke that left local residents ill and prompted the ire of neighbouring countries.
The Indonesian office of international environmental group Greenpeace said the number of fire incidents over the past few years has continued to increase in Riau, a Sumatran province at the centre of major forest and land fire incidents in Indonesia in recent years.
Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Muhammad Teguh Surya said a total of 6,644 hot spots were detected across Riau in 2011 and the figure has continued to rise, with 8,107 hot spots detected in 2012 and 15,112 last year.
As of October this year, we recorded more than 21,000 fire hot spots, he told Indonesian news portal Tempo.co earlier this month.
The Riau administration declared a state of emergency in the province in late February after it failed to tackle fires and haze that spread to surrounding provinces, forcing airports to shut down and disrupting flights, as well as threatening the health of residents.
The National Disaster Management Agency, or BNPB, said during the emergency period that ran from Feb 26 to April 4 that potential economic losses from the fires and haze were estimated at 20 trillion rupiah (S$2.12 billion). Nearly 22,000ha of land were torched, including 2,400ha located in biosphere reserves. Nearly six million people were exposed to the haze and 58,000 people suffered respiratory problems as a result.
Riau was forced to declare another state of emergency in July. Although local firefighters, with the help of the military and police, managed to extinguish most of the fires, they kept coming back throughout the year.
Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has highlighted the need for better law enforcement. In the wake of the peak of the fire and haze incidents in the first quarter of the year, the police arrested dozens of people for allegedly starting the blazes, but law enforcement in the sector has generally been considered toothless, with security officers criticised for only nabbing small-scale farmers and barely going after the large plantation companies in whose concessions many of the hot spots are located.
The key is law enforcement. Peatlands burn easily and, once they burn, its difficult to extinguish the fire. Prevention is more effective than putting out the fires, said Mr Sutopo.
Environmentalists have attributed most of the haze cases to the clearing of peatlands to make way for plantations, especially for oil palms.
Local farmers and big plantation companies have blamed each other for starting the fires, but President Joko Jokowi Widodo, during a visit to Riau last month, won activists praise when he threw his weight behind the smallholders.
The best thing to do is to give the land to people so they can use it to plant sago. Whats made by people is usually environmentally-friendly. They wont do any harm to nature, he said. However, if we give the land to corporations, they will only switch it to monoculture plantations.
Mr Widodos predecessor, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, won plaudits from the international community for championing the environment pledging Indonesias commitment to cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 using its own resources and by 41 per cent with international support. He enacted a moratorium on deforestation in 2011 to achieve those goals and the ban will be in place until next year.
But his administration came under fire after the Nature Climate Change journal published in June a report on a study that found Indonesia had overtaken Brazil as the worlds biggest carbon dioxide emitter by deforestation, despite the moratorium.
The report said the countrys primary forest loss totalled more than 6 million ha from 2000 to 2012, with an average increase of 47,600ha per year.
By 2012, annual primary forest loss in Indonesia was estimated to be higher than in Brazil; 0.84 million ha and 0.46 million ha, respectively, it added.
Mr Zenzi Suhaidi, a campaign manager with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, or Walhi, criticised a presidential regulation on peatland protection issued by Mr Yudhoyono earlier this year because it changed the status of Benoa Bay in the south of Bali from a conservation area into a so-called buffer zone.
The change in status allows a controversial commercial development project in the area to proceed, despite an outcry from local fishermen and environmental activists.
But Mr Zenzi, like other environmental activists, is encouraged by Mr Widodos take on green issues, following the Presidents visit to Sungai Tohor village in Riaus Meranti Islands district late last month.
They believe his siding with local farmers and particular attention to the management of peatlands are positive signs of his commitment to the environment. During that visit, Mr Widodo introduced a canal system to manage the water level in peatlands to make them more resistant to fires. He said he wanted the system to be part of the governments permanent policies on Indonesias peatland management.
Mr Widodo has also ordered reviews of logging permits and concessions of plantation and mining firms, in an effort to crack down on slash-and-burn clearing of forests.
Those commitments may be part of a concrete agenda that will have significant effects. And implementation of all of them must start in 2015, Mr Zenzi said.
He added that the government must set up a body to ensure implementation of those commitments. Mechanisms (for resolutions) have to be built because the number of cases of (land) conflict and environmental degradation is very high already, and the incidents are widespread, he said.
Mr Zenzi added that the administration also faced a challenge in the form of regulations issued during Mr Yudhoyonos term. Although (Mr Widodos) administration has signalled its good intentions to fix our countrys environmental problems, we cannot forget that there are many policies on the environment arbitrarily issued by the previous administration, he said.
However, Mr Rasio Ridho Sani, a deputy to the Environment and Forestry Minister, argued that Indonesia had made significant improvements in the environmental sector, citing growing environmental awareness among logging, plantation and mining firms operating in forests.
He said 70 per cent of the 1,908 companies under the ministrys supervision were committed to complying with the governments environmental standards. The figure is an increase from 49 per cent in 2004.
This means the environmental awareness of the business community has increased. And we hope that the number will stay that high and increase even further, Mr Rasio said.
He added that the publics awareness about environmental issues was also improving, citing how more people were starting to cycle to work and were committed to recycling their waste as part of a greener lifestyle.
This is a very good sign for our nation, Mr Rasio said.