INDONESIA – JAKARTA — Indonesian President Joko Widodo has demanded accountability from his top officials over the land and forest fires that hit the country last year, as the government braces for the onset of this year’s dry season.
The fires in 2019 burned nearly 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) — an area half the size of Belgium — mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. While affecting a smaller area than the more widely publicized Amazon fires of last year, the burning in Indonesia churned out nearly twice as much carbon dioxide.
There had been ample early warning that the burning in 2019 would be more severe than in previous years, due to a more intense dry season and El Niño weather system. But Widodo told a cabinet meeting to discuss preparations for the upcoming dry season that he was surprised the burning had gotten so bad. He said he thought all parties had learned from the 2015 fires, which burned 26,000 km2 (10,000 mi2), resulting in one of the worst haze episodes in the country’s history.
“What’s happening?” he asked ministers and other top officials at the Feb. 6 meeting in Jakarta. “There was good [progress after 2015], so why did [the fires] increase again? What’s this again?”
In the wake of the 2015 fires, Widodo rolled out a number of initiatives, including an ambitious plan to restore degraded peatlands across the country, and threatened to dismiss military and police top brass for failing to prevent or extinguish fires in their regions.
“Is the [threat of] a discharge not enough?” Widodo asked at the recent cabinet meeting. “Is the preparation not enough?”
Widodo said Indonesia couldn’t afford to be complacent in tackling forest fires, regardless of how they compared with similar disasters in other countries. That contrasts with senior officials’ earlier attempts to downplay the problem by saying the burning wasn’t as bad as in the Amazon or elsewhere.
“We don’t want fires like the ones in Russia, which reached 10 million hectares [100,000 square kilometers, or 38,600 square miles], in Brazil with 4.5 million hectares, Bolivia with 1.8 million, Canada with 1.8 million, and the most recent massive fires in Australia,” Widodo said.
He added the Australian fires had not only hurt that country’s economy, but also devastated its wildlife, with up to half a billion animals possibly killed.
“It means the loss of genetic resources, both flora and fauna,” Widodo said. “That’s what we don’t want. It’s a treasure that can’t be measured with money.”
Government officials have been widely criticized for their responses to last year’s fires, most of which were set deliberately to clear land for plantations.
“Actually we don’t need to be too discouraged because our efforts have been quite good considering that fires happen not only in our country, but almost all over the world,” Doni Monardo, the head of the country’s national disaster mitigation agency, BNPB, said last December.
But much of the burning in Indonesia occurred on carbon-rich peatlands, in contrast to the mineral soils of the Amazon. As a result, the fires in Indonesia unleashed at least 708 million tons of greenhouse gases — nearly double the 366 million tons churned out by the burning in the Brazilian Amazon, according to a study.
Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister, was also criticized after denying that the fires in Indonesia had sent haze to Malaysia and Singapore, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary: smoke from Indonesia’s peat fires drifted across the Malacca Strait and Borneo last year, sending air pollution indexes in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other cities to hazardous levels.
The president’s chief of staff, Moeldoko, last year called on people affected by the haze to be patient and pray, blaming the disaster squarely on “God.” The country’s chief security minister at the time, Wiranto, had a different take, blaming smallholders for setting the fires. He then also claimed there was a political angle to the arson, linking the burning to the elections that took place in April.
Widodo himself later acknowledged that the government should have anticipated the fires early on and was guilty of negligence.
“Ahead of the dry season, everyone should have been prepared,” he said in September. “But we’ve been negligent again [in 2019], so the haze has become big.”
Preparing for 2020 dry season
For the 2020 dry season, expected to begin in April and run through October, officials must do better to prevent or control the fires, Widodo said. He also reiterated his threat to fire military and police officials in affected jurisdictions, and noted that fires have already been detected in Siak district, in Sumatra’s Riau province.
“Extinguish them immediately,” he said. “Don’t let the fires grow to two, three or five. Stop them at one. That’s the only thing we can do so that the fires don’t grow big.”
He also emphasized the need to find a permanent solution to the annual problem. In 2016, in response to the fires the year before, the president launched an initiative to restore 20,000 km2 (7,700 mi2) of peatlands by 2020. These are areas where the moist peat layer has been drained in preparation for planting, rendering it dry and highly combustible, and where drainage canals have to be blocked and wells drilled to bring the water levels back up. That initiative is led by the specially established Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG).
“I reminded the BRG chief that the rewetting [of peatlands] needs to be maintained,” Widodo said. “Canals [have to be] maintained well so that they’re wet all the time, especially in peat areas that experience drastic decline of water level during dry seasons.”
By the end of 2019, the BRG had restored less than 7,800 km2 (3,000 mi2) of degraded peatlands. The remainder of the degraded peatlands targeted for restoration lie inside plantation concessions, and the concession holders are responsible for restoring them. To date, they have restored about 4,100 km2 (1,600 mi2).
‘Not 100% perfect’
Environmental activists have criticized the peat restoration program for its lack of transparency, saying there is no way to verify the government’s claims.
“The time to fulfill the committed peat restoration goal is less than 12 months away, and to date the public hasn’t gotten a picture [of the progress],” Teguh Surya, executive director of the environmental NGO Madani, said.
He also criticized the quality of the work done by the government to rewet the peatlands.
“The design of the peat restoration policy isn’t 100% perfect,” he said. “The hope is for the policy to be perfected after 2020 because the peat restoration [initiative] only started with infrastructure development, but no maintenance. A lot of canal blocks and drilled wells were constructed properly but they’ve since failed to be used because they’ve been damaged.”
Myrna A. Safitri, a deputy head of the BRG, acknowledged that some of the thousands of wells and canal blocks built to reverse the draining of the peatlands were not functioning as hoped.
“But in terms of percentage, the bad ones aren’t as many as the good ones,” she said. “If the majority of the wells and canal blocks were bad, then there should have been more fires in 2017 and 2018, but the fact is that they declined in those years.”
Myrna blamed the shoddy work on parties who built the infrastructure based on different standards than those of the BRG.
“Often they also don’t report [what they’ve built] to the BRG,” she said. “So we don’t know who built them. But if the public sees a well has been drilled, they think it must have been built by the BRG.”
Lack of funding is also a factor for some of the infrastructure falling into disrepair, Myrna said.
“We’ve maintained [the infrastructure] but only those built using the state budget,” she said. “And the maintenance budget is very small, so there’s no way we could maintain them all.”
Environment minister Siti said the BRG should work harder in making sure fires didn’t break out since most hotspots broke out outside of companies’ concessions.
“Most of past hotspots located on the edges of concessions, outside of concessions,” she said. “That’s where the BRG should’ve work hard.”
While there might be some fires breaking out outside of concessions, companies are still responsible in making sure that their plantations and the surroundings free from fires, according to Hairul Sobri, the director of the South Sumatra chapter of the country’s largest green group, Walhi.
“The fact is that the edges of concessions [are prone to fires] because of the impact from the concessions themselves,” he said. “So if we’re talking about peatlands, we can’t talk partially, but we must talk about the whole peat landscape.”
Banner image: Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, Indonesia. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.
Mongabay Indonesia reporter Lusia Arumingtyas contributed to this report