REPORT FROM INDONESIA: The promise of participation amid the politics of peat fires and haze.

REPORT FROM INDONESIA: The promise of participation amid the politics of peat fires and haze.

01 November 2017

published by


by Lindon Pronto

A fire history

For millennia, fire has been used in Indonesia as a tool in farming and land clearing known as slash-and-burn agriculture. Population growth, migration and economic development of the 20th Century resulted in the rampant conversion of native forests and peatlands for agricultural purposes. Biodiversity- and carbon-rich, pristine forest, and peat-swamp ecosystems were cleared, drained and burned, and replaced by agro-industrial systems. Fires set for conversion of native vegetation and burning out of control had a marked impact on all facets of society. Periodic severe episodes have spurred major international efforts and cumulative multi-billion dollar investments over the years to address Indonesia’s fire challenges.

In 1982/83, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) drought contributed to the burning of 5 million hectares (ha) of lands in Indonesia (3.5 million ha in East Kalimantan alone). The magnitude of these fires remained largely unnoticed by the global community. By the early 1990s, Indonesia became increasingly affected by excessive fire application in land use and land-use change; in 1994 an estimated 5.4 million ha burned (1). Periodic recurrences of the ENSO weather pattern produced severe short-term droughts in Southeast Asia, during which traditional land-use fires burned out of control.

The El Niño event of 1997-98 damaged an estimated 10-11 million ha. Clearly, despite the mounting scientific evidence of negative environmental consequences of large-scale fire application, the situation continued to deteriorate (2). These conditions reoccurred in 2006 when another 8 million ha burned, and again in 2015-16 (1).

Despite dozens of projects, investments, a legally binding transboundary agreement and response mechanisms, the root causes have not been sufficiently addressed, leaving many symptoms to persist. The following is part one in a two-part report, which aims to highlight challenges in the region – consider regional and global implications of fire and haze, explore underlying conflicts and stakeholder constellations which have contributed to the complexity of regional fire management, and to outline past efforts in Indonesia, leading up to the recent crisis of 2015.

The impacts of fire

ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE. The “haze” episode of 1997-98, garnered international attention and assistance for enhancing fire management capacity and providing advisory support for environmental and land-use policies. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investments, the effectiveness of these efforts remained low due to the complexity of the issue, and a misguided emphasis on suppression-oriented interventions. However, the crisis of the late 1990s refocused efforts of the scientific community: higher capabilities in aerial observations and atmospheric measurements coupled with more detailed research on the ground were pursued. Studies indicated emissions releases at the time constituted around one-third of the annual global anthropogenic emissions and up to 40% of carbon emissions from fossil fuels for that year (3).

The 2015 El Niño resulted in fires affecting more than 2.6 million ha (4). Fires burning in September and October 2015, released an estimated 11.3 Tg CO2 per day (one teragram = one million metric tons) – greater than the daily release of 8.9 Tg of CO2 from fossil fuel burning in the entire European Union Member States (5); or by another estimate, roughly 15 Tg of CO2 per day (6). A recent study found significantly lower emissions releases, signaling that more in-depth research is required to accurately calculate peat fire emission factors, as these may differ from lab experiments (7).

While further environmental impacts are difficult to quantify, peatland destruction is the most consequential as it turns an age-old carbon sink into an emissions source. Peatland ecosystems take hundreds of years to regenerate; the losses in the past half-century are cumulative and likely never to fully regenerate – an assumption that is supported by the observed and the expected pace and consequences of climate change in the equatorial tropics.

Figure 1. Daily emissions in millions of tons of CO2 in Indonesia during 2015. Source: World Resources Institute, 2015.

ECONOMIC IMPACT. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – BNPB) of Indonesia, damages to the national economy from 2015 fires, amounted to $16.5 billion— an equivalent to 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP (4). The World Bank estimated that fires cost upwards of $295 million in biodiversity-related losses. Not counted, are potentially billions of dollars previously invested towards Indonesian fire management since the mid-1980s. Heavy investments were influenced by a study positing the most cost-effective method for industrialized nations to battle climate change was through the protection of at-risk forests in developing countries. Norway, for example, has offered $1bn to Indonesia to halt deforestation (8).[1]

SOCIAL COSTS. A significant consequence of land-conversion burning is the impact of smoke and haze on the livelihoods and the health of the population of Indonesia and neighboring countries, by way of regional and cross-border smoke pollution. Additionally, the continual degradation of forest and the peatland environment, loss of biodiversity and social conflicts further diminish the livelihoods of communities. Since the 1997-98 smoke pollution episode health impacts have received greater attention. By the end of 2015, the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (Badan Meteorologi Klimatologi & Geofisika – BMKG) declared the crisis of 2015 “a crime against humanity” – effectively putting a new humanitarian frame on the issue.

Impacts of smoke pollution on Indonesians became impossible to ignore – especially when schools, transportation infrastructure, airports and maritime trade routes were impaired or shut down for significant time periods. The consequences of smoke pollution on human health have been reemphasized by a recent study estimating over 180,000 premature deaths occurred annually from smoke pollution (9).

Large expanses of forest have been cut down and burned to prepare for plantations in the Riau Province, contributing to hazardous air quality across the region. Photo: Bambang Saharjo, 2016.

Indonesia alone had 583,925 cases of acute respiratory tract illness between July and November 2015. That year there were also 26 fire-related fatalities (10). Particulate matter (PM) presents the main hazard from fire emissions to human health. Other types of emissions such as carbon monoxide, aldehydes, and ozone precursors also present risks. The most at-risk individuals include people with lung or heart conditions, infants and the elderly. The most recent health impact modeling study estimated the 2015-16 smoke crisis cost up to 100,300 Southeast Asians their lives by way of premature mortality (11); the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore refuted that study, claiming it to be grossly exaggerated. Another recent study estimated 69 million people were persistently exposed to unhealthy pollution levels in fall of 2015, resulting in an excess of up to 17,000 deaths (12). The issue of smoke pollution, in particular, has been highly politicized, is frequently discussed in the media, and contributes to blaming and significant tensions between Southeast Asian nations – especially between Singapore and Indonesia.


While the Indonesian constitution respects customary laws, a communities’ right to self-govern and their customary land rights, other national laws allow government agencies much discretion in deciding whether to respect them (13) – which can be interpreted according to various interests. When pressed, government officials contend unregistered land is owned by the Indonesian people, but acknowledge that the state controls such land for the benefit of the people. Interpreted, the state holds radical title to all land in Indonesia (14, 13). There are no reliable legal structures to solve land rights disputes since courts remain susceptible to outside influences; government action (or inaction) is still impeded by police, administrative and political corruption. Governance structures have been insufficient to stop illegal burning; legislation on land tenure is weak and enforcement of customary land rights is problematic due to:

Lack of enforcement capacity
Lack of consensus on property boundaries
No legal mechanism to defend a local’s customary right to land area that is not clearly defined
Limited ability to prove ownership, land use/tenure rights responsibility for ill-defined areas (also difficult to prove who lit an illegal fire and on which side of a property “boundary”).

Structural poverty is the underlying factor affecting community capacity to apply technologies other than the “slash and burn” technique. However, since the post-Reformasi period (mid-1998) fire has been used as a weapon in social conflicts between customary communities, large plantation companies, local authorities and the national government – with land-use / tenure rights at the heart of these conflicts (15). Stakeholders have interfering interests and different perceptions on how the land should be used and who should access/control it. Fulfilment of one party’s interest – particularly a plantation company – may have severe impacts on local communities – which need to secure their livelihoods. One thing is clear, fire is a necessary tool for poor farmers and a cheap land conversion tool for plantation companies.

In the late 1990s at the end of Suharto’s 30-year authoritarian rule, the economy entered a crisis. In response, reforms were carried out and the central government decentralized power to local authorities, including land allocation responsibilities (15). To alleviate socio-economic conditions, local communities were encouraged to grow food on “uncultivated” land, which resulted in communities interpreting small-scale agriculture as being allowed in some protected areas. Later attempts by the Forestry Department to end cultivation of protected areas were sometimes confronted by local farmers claiming customary land rights or at least compensation for ceasing activities (16).

Decentralization of land allocation procedures opened the door to expanded corruption, dubious relationships between local politicians (who were authorized to give concessions), and primarily palm oil and pulp producers. Land concessions were often literally given away to plantation owners; the very logical tradeoff was that local officials were paid out in return, allowing them to finance reelections. Reports have shown a positive correlation between concessions ‘sales’ to large companies leading up to elections (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The number of fires coinciding before district elections. Note that the spike in fires in 2006 and 2015 was also influenced by a severe El Niño drought those years (17).

Under Indonesian law, the landowner (whether farmer or corporation) is accountable for illegal fire damages on their own land. However, there is the incentive for plantations to “prepare” land with fire firstly due to it being 75% cheaper per ha than using mechanized equipment; secondly, if the fire were to “accidentally” escape concession land, it would destroy the forest on adjacent land. In the case of destroyed peatland, previously concession owners have successfully argued for putting “destroyed” peatland into production; another strategy was “salvage logging” (intentionally) burned areas. The cycle of concession giving was likely repeated. In the case of non-peatland owned by a local farmer, if forest on his land had been destroyed, the value of his property increased – as the cleared land was more valuable than forested land; then the cycle of expanding concession land continued. Particularly with migrant populations, or people not having inherited the land over generations, there has been profit-making incentive to burn their own land – or venture onto (uncleared) concession land and start a wildfire there which is potentially in oil palm concession-holder interests as well – being a likely acquirer of the burned (private) land. This sort of risk-taking was economically justified in a context where very few arrests were/are made, there is a lack of property demarcation (described above), and the legal or financial ramifications are both lugubrious and weak. The benefit of following the law is far outweighed by the cost (e.g. proper mechanical clearing), and the consequences of getting caught, charged and prosecuted were not likely while the reward for illegal behavior was highly profitable and even “politically” possible. Perceived injustices connected to customary rights, decreased the incentives of communities to keep slash-and-burn fires from spreading onto adjacent concession land; blame for setting fires has been exchanged by local farmers and plantation company workers alike.

Oil palm plantations and logging

Large oil palm plantation companies who have been outed as the largest culprit of illegal widespread fire application, are also important drivers of economic growth for the country. The exports of palm oil alone generate US$20 billion a year and employ millions of citizens (18). However, after the 2015 fire outbreak and resulting economic losses, the government initiated dozens of investigations against palm oil and pulp and paper outfits. Government is under increasing external pressure from neighboring countries – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – over the haze, and recent global attention on the issue has affected the country’s position and bargaining power in global climate change conferences, (i.e. COP-21) as the international community works to address emission reduction targets. This has spurred another wave of international involvement in the region.

One international response led by environmentalists is pressuring companies to demand of their palm oil suppliers to adopt more sustainable practices, such as not planting on high carbon-stock peatlands. One result was the “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” pledge signed in 2014 by major Indonesian palm oil companies. Despite such efforts, indigenous peoples continue to claim the violation of such pledges by the companies – see, for instance, the Maninjau Resolution. Satellite and drone footage also suggest many violations.

Corporate plantation firefighters respond to peat fires that spread to logging decks in Riau Province, June 2004. Photo: Brad Sanders

Palm oil and paper pulp entities are heavily intertwined with other stakeholder groups, making their explicit roles in the fire and haze crises difficult to follow. They exert significant influence over federal government and local government and likely hire locals to illegally use fire to prepare land. A noteworthy escalation in “dirty” tactics was an incident reported by Reuters, when in late 2016 up to 100 men allegedly hired by a palm oil company, detained and held hostage a group of 12 environmental investigators following up on satellite data indicating illegal fire-use. The investigators were held for 12 hours and threatened to be burned to death and their bodies dumped. Some companies are apparently willing to go to extremes to protect their profits and expand their production.

Despite ambitions to control fires, the Indonesian central state’s presence and authority at the local level have been weak. Meanwhile, local governments still manage to facilitate access for plantation companies, despite the 2014 legislative change transferring land allocation powers back to the central government (the 1998 decentralization legislation was in effect reversed). Although laws have undergone recent changes after realizing the detriment of decentralized power, local relationships (corrupt or otherwise) have had nearly 20 years to mature. Many loggers and plantation owners have close links to politicians, bureaucrats, local officials, and military officers. For instance, numerous Suharto family members also held/hold direct interests in logging, pulp, and palm oil (19).

Past projects in the region

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, many national and internationally supported projects (probably 30-plus mainly short-term projects), aimed at tackling the problem in Indonesia. Among these were German (BMZ / GTZ and KfW) funded Integrated Fire Management Project (IFFM) in East Kalimantan (1994-2003) and the (EU) GTZ Forest Fire Management Projects in South Sumatra (1999-2008). These projects “tested the waters” for similar efforts while building methodological approaches of Integrated Fire Management under the relatively unknown conditions present in Indonesia. They produced valuable insight into the underlying causes of fire application and uncontrolled wildfires, including the problems of poverty and questions of land-use rights and conflicts discussed above.

Unfortunately, efforts were challenged by a period of rapidly increasing pressures of international market demands, especially palm oil, pulp and paper. Widespread conversion of land could not be reconciled with a growing population, social problems connected to agro-industrialization, and the persistent problems of land tenure and land-use rights. Additionally, these development projects coincided with the democratization of the country (reformasi) after the end of the Suharto era and the subsequent decentralization of the country’s administrations as of 1999, complicating international assistance and involvement.

IFFM: Lessons learned

A limitation of previous projects like IFFM was a tendency to impose Western views on fire management: In Indonesia, fire was not necessarily considered “bad”. Growing the GDP and benefiting Suharto-era politicians was made possible through the major agro-industrialization of the landscape, so fire was implicitly a friend of corporations and the government, not to mention a subsistence tool for smallholders. Secondly, the only infrastructure that dealt with fire was the disaster-relief agency (BNPB); between bad fire years, the issue was simply forgotten and there were no ongoing fire management/prevention activities (20). Slowly a shift began when the country democratized near the turn of the century – about halfway through the IFFM project. A priority to permanently institutionalize fire management at the national level was quickly identified.

Seventeen years on, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has since tackled this task, while BNPB still overlaps and takes jurisdictional control over fires when they burn across state borders or overwhelm local suppression efforts. However, misplaced incentive structures are found in administrative / policy discrepancies – for instance, when BNPB is called upon by a local or provincial government, federal funding is unlocked for fire suppression. This rule presents impetus for local governments to wait for the fire to spread out of control or across a state border, to avoid paying suppression costs out of their provincial and local budgets.

While the country has come a long way, one of the main lessons of IFFM is still very valid as most of the underlying socio-economic issues remain: “the underlying causes of fire showed that fire management in Indonesia is not possible without the intensive involvement of villages and that a co-operation between several authorities and that the support of NGOs is necessary” (20). A key development has been an ongoing transfer of knowledge and information dissemination which helps establish personal contact with individuals at all levels; this is needed to overcome a disconnect between community-level challenges and awareness in the capitals.

Promise of participation

In retrospect, the more effective projects like IFFM in East Kalimantan emphasized participatory community-led fire management. Local communities were targeted to receive support in fire prevention and suppression efforts and to engage nearby concession-holders to cooperate in preventing and fighting fires (20). Strategies for achieving these objectives were discussed with participants from selected villages; discussions and role-playing, among other activities, were explored. Villagers were encouraged to organize themselves, develop their own SOPs and discuss different aspects of village fire management. The elaboration of some basic SOPs was an initial step in developing cooperation and coordination among village fire crews and the district government, local fire centers, other land management agencies, and private forest and plantation management companies (20).

In East Kalimantan, participatory fire management aimed at diffusing conflicts through improving successful fire management outputs, by developing and strengthening provincial and local fire management capacities (21). This approach includes integrating indigenous and local community knowledge to capacitate fire prevention efforts as local wisdom has often been effective: most community members are aware of unwanted impacts of fire, and the increased risk of burning during drought conditions evidenced by farmers “slashing” their land, but waiting until after rain to actually conduct burning (22).

There are no guarantees that local concerns of and traditional knowledge about fire management are always incorporated, however, it can be generally assumed that communities involved became more informed about fire management, and that awareness of fire management practices was heightened; projects led to certain improvements and locally reduced fire incidences. Unfortunately, while fire management skills may well have improved, the root causes of wildfire – for instance, inter-group conflict among different stakeholders, or the lack of clear land-use and tenure rights for local communities on the one hand, and policy loopholes on the other – must still be effectively addressed. It is therefore important that the scope of fire management activities is expanded and that federal and local government deal with administrative and enforcement shortcomings.

Key regional fire and haze politics

Smoke pollution in Indonesia and Southeast Asia has become increasingly political. Efforts to address the social, economic, environmental and other implications of the ENSO-fueled fire outbreaks have spiked following the aforementioned incidents. Transboundary mechanisms and national policies have had years of development: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed in 2002, is the only legally binding multilateral agreement pertaining to fire management issues anywhere in the world.

Dense smoke and haze originating from peat fires at Palangkaraya airport on 16 October 2015 caused air transport delays for several weeks; CIFOR measured CO levels at 30 times higher than normal. Photo: Brad Sanders.

Since the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement by all member states in 2014, all 10 countries are obligated to implement the Agreement. Since, ministerial-level meetings have been conducted regularly and are convened and hosted on a country-rotation basis; unfortunately, cross-border political tensions over haze issues have sometimes lowered the effectiveness of meetings – leading to a country’s representatives “walking-out” on at least one occasion. The fickle nature of international cooperation supports the argument for developing national capacities especially in community-led efforts – perhaps this is where the greatest potential lies for effectively combating regional fire and haze challenges.

International recognition of the problem prior to, and at the UNFCC Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, December 2015, has spurred Indonesia to enforce existing laws regulating the use of fire and to enhance governance in fire management at all levels. By the end of 2015, the magnitude of emissions contributing to climate change alarmed international fire scientists, managers, and policymakers at the 6th International Wildland Fire Conference (Pyeongchang, Korea, October 2015) who called on COP 21 for action (see Issue 25.1).

The upcoming second report on Indonesia in Wildfire Magazine, will highlight potential alliances, focus on current and planned efforts which aim at using integrated fire management, and efforts at the science-policy interface to begin to address the many challenges moving ahead. The role of the Regional Fire Management Resource Center – Southeast Asia (RFMC-SEA), the 5th regional center operating under the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), will be emphasized.

About the Author: Lindon Pronto works as a fire management officer with the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) of the Max-Planck Insitute, with current assignments ranging from Indonesia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the European Union.


[1] Norway has since just completed a similar $1bn payout to Brazil (offered in 2008); while there were many contributing factors, the unprecedented investment likely played a pivotal role in Brazil’s success in rapidly reducing disforestation rates.

Indonesian military personnel reopen old drainage canals and dig additional ones to provide a source of water for fire suppression in peatlands south of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan in Sept. 2015. Photo: Brad Sanders.

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