INDONESIA – JAKARTA — Indonesia has restored degraded peatlands the size of a million football fields in the three years since President Joko Widodo launched an ambitious program aimed at preventing a repeat of some of the worst forest fires in the country’s history.
But that success may have had more to do with luck than anything else, activists say, as anticipated tinderbox conditions mirroring the 2015 dry season that led to those earlier fires loom over the next few months.
The 2015 fires raged across 26,100 square kilometers (10,100 square miles) of land, much of it peat forest that had been drained for agriculture and rendered highly combustible. The resultant haze sickened hundreds of thousands of people, shut down airports, and spread to neighboring countries, inflaming long-running diplomatic spats. The dry conditions that year were exacerbated by an El Niño weather system, which is likely to make an appearance again in the next few months, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The impact from El Niño “started in November, but the trend is increasing, and it’s going to peak in February or March,” said Ruanda Agung Sugardiman, who oversees climate change policies at the Indonesian environment ministry.
NOAA has predicted up to an 80 percent chance of a full-fledged El Niño by February, with a 60 percent chance of it continuing into April.
In anticipation of the coming dry season, the government is taking extra measures, Ruanda said, including allocating more funding to local governments for fire prevention.
“Before this, most of the budget [for forest fires] was earmarked for the central government, but now we’re allocating 75 percent of our climate change budget to local governments,” he said.
The environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said the slate of policies rolled out since 2015 had resulted in a significant decline in the number and extent of fires, from 26,100 square kilometers that year to 1,950 square kilometers (750 square miles) in 2018. The number of fire hotspots also dropped during the same period, from nearly 71,000 to just 9,200.
But that apparent success may have had less to do with the peat-restoration and fire-prevention measures than with the milder weather conditions in the intervening years, activists say: there hasn’t been a full-on El Niño since 2016.
“We attribute the decrease in the intensity of forest fires not to an improvement in [peat and forest] management, but to natural factors,” Khalisah Khalid, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO, told Mongabay.
Activists from Pantau Gambut, a coalition of 23 NGOs that acts as a watchdog for peat protection and restoration efforts, have also questioned the effectiveness of the government’s policies. The coalition’s own spatial analysis shows most of the hotspots detected during the peak of the dry season in August 2018 were inside areas that were either prioritized for peat restoration or supposed to be protected under a moratorium on developing peatland.
If those measures were truly effective, there should have been a steep reduction or complete elimination of fires in those particular areas, Pantau Gambut said.
“These findings indicate that we need to question [the government’s] claim and the effectiveness of its restoration work,” said Muhammad Teguh Surya, the coalition’s national coordinator.
‘We can handle this’
In the wake of the 2015 fires and haze, President Widodo established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) and charged it with leading nationwide efforts to restore 24,000 square kilometers (9,300 square miles) of peat areas, the size of 4.5 million football fields, by the end of 2020.
The rationale was that by restoring degraded peatland, including through blocking drainage canals and rewetting the dried-out peat layers, it would be harder for fires to spread out of control and make it easier for officials to contain them.
In 2017, the BRG rewetted just over 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of degraded peatland. In 2018, it restored another 4,600 square kilometers (1,780 square miles), for a total of 6,650 square kilometers (2,570 square miles), or the size of a million football fields.
In addition to the restoration policy, in 2016 President Widodo also announced a moratorium on the clearing of carbon-rich peat forests across the country.
The BRG chief, Nazir Foead, said he believed that peat fires on the scale of the 2015 disaster would not happen in 2019, citing lessons learned from past mistakes.
“We are very convinced … that we can handle this,” Nazir said as quoted by The Straits Times. “We cannot say that there will not be fires, but there will be fewer incidents, and they will be put out much quicker.”
Enviroment minister Siti was similarly upbeat, saying at a year-end gathering at her office that “our transboundary haze [policies] have shown results.”
‘A lie and an error’
But field investigations by Pantau Gambut throw those claims into question. The coalition found that peat-rewetting and firefighting equipment in some areas weren’t functioning properly. One village in Jambi province on the island of Sumatra was found to have fire hoses that were too large for the available water pressure, and too short to reach fire-prone areas. In another village in Jambi, a water pump installed there wasn’t powerful enough to provide sufficient water to put out fires.
“If we’d found this inadequate equipment in the 1990s, maybe we could understand,” Teguh said. “But this happened after the president launched the peat-restoration initiative, so we have to question this. How can areas that had been prioritized for peat restoration have equipment that can’t be used in the event of a fire?”
BRG secretary Hartono Prawiraatmadja said those particular facilities had been built by third parties in 2016, before standardized specifications for the equipment needed had been drawn up. He also said the BRG had earmarked at least 20 percent of its funding for the maintenance of equipment.
“Last year, we didn’t allocate any budget for maintenance,” Hartono said. “There’s a concern that if there’s no maintenance, then the facilities won’t work properly during fires. That’s why, starting in 2019, we’ve allocated funding for maintenance.”
Teguh dismissed the explanation as a cop-out.
“There should have been concrete actions [to fix the equipment],” he said. “In my opinion, the excuse of not having funding or standardization is a lie and a serious error. How could such a vital project be carried out without any clear standards [or maintenance]?”
Target in sight?
There’s another key point where the BRG and NGOs differ. Under the peat-restoration initiative, companies whose concessions include peatlands are responsible for restoring those areas, which amount to 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of the total 24,000 square kilometers.
The concessions in question include areas of deep peat that contain high biodiversity. Under the president’s signature anti-haze regulation, these areas must be zoned for conservation and rewetted to prevent fires. As of August 2018, 127 pulpwood and plantation companies had submitted their restoration plans to the environment ministry. Three months earlier, the ministry reported that the companies had restored a combined 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles) of degraded peatland since 2015, mostly by blocking the canals initially dug to drain the peat in preparation for planting.
That figure has since been updated to 14,000 square kilometers, which, if accurate, means the companies have fulfilled their peat-restoration obligations, the BRG’s Hartono said. He added that this claim on the part of the companies had yet to be verified through on-the-ground inspections.
But Pantau Gambut says the government has failed to disclose detailed information on the implementation of the companies’ restoration plans. There also hasn’t been any transparent follow-up to the companies’ submitted plans, despite the fact that the restoration is required to be carried out immediately upon approval of the plans.
Ultimately, Teguh said, there’s no independent confirmation that the peatland restoration has been carried out as reported by the companies.
“Unfortunately, after they’ve revised their plans, it remains unclear whether the restoration work has been carried out or not,” he said. “The public has never been involved in the process. Without a transparent [process to disclose the] information, the public is left in the dark.”
For its part, the government is preparing a regulation to serve as a guideline for the BRG and civil society groups to monitor the companies’ restoration activities, Hartono said. To verify their claim to have restored 14,000 square kilometers of peatland, the BRG needs to have the regulation in place, currently being drafted by the environment ministry.
“If the BRG enters [the companies’ concessions] without a clear regulation [permitting it to do so], the companies are worried that it might disrupt [their operations],” Hartono said said.
“We haven’t been able to confirm yet that what the companies are doing matches or expectations,” he added. “So we will supervise the companies, both in terms of what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do.”
If the companies’ claims are confirmed, then that leaves the BRG with less than 4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles) of degraded peat areas to restore before the end of 2020.
“We’re optimistic [we can meet that target] if that’s the case,” Hartono said.
Teguh cautioned that while this might seem a small number compared to the agency’s achievements in the past two years, the BRG should be diligent about ensuring it met its target in an open and accountable manner.
“Considering how there’s only two years left, the BRG has several big tasks pending,” he said. “That includes making its peat restoration agenda more inclusive and accountable, sharing its data and restoration progress in more detail, accepting criticism and recommendations for improvement, and not basing its work only on projects.”
Banner image: Firefighters extinguish fires in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.