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Is Indonesia’s fight against forest fires falling short?

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Police and a fire fighter from a local forestry company try to extinguish a forest fire in the village in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia 28 August 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman).

In Brief

Forest fires sweeping across Sumatra and Kalimantan in recent months prompted six Indonesian provinces to declare a state of emergency. Yet the scale of resources devoted to fighting and preventing fires remains far short of what is needed to turn around Indonesia’s rising rates of deforestation and meet Indonesia’s ambitious climate pledge.


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Fires break out across Indonesia every year during the dry season as large companies and smallholder farmers alike burn forests and fields to clear land for crops, especially lucrative oil palm and pulpwood. These crops are big business. Palm oil exports exceeded US$15 billion in 2015, while the forestry industry employs more than half a million Indonesians. The fires are enabled by decades of forest degradation caused by logging, which thins and dries the forest.

Fires are biggest during El Niño years when flames can reach catastrophic proportions as they did in 1998 and 2015. But sizable fires happen even in non-El Niño years, like 2017. Across the country, the fires cause respiratory damage as millions of Indonesians inhale smoke, as well as economic damages to airports, schools, crops and timber. The World Bank estimated the damages to Indonesia from the 2015 fires at US$16 billion — larger than the annual added value from the palm oil industry.

Regionally, the fires spark diplomatic conflicts with ASEAN neighbours downwind. Globally, the greenhouse gas emissions from burning forests and peat soils puts Indonesia in the top contributors to climate change. Climate change in turn threatens Indonesia’s low-lying islands, coastal cities, reef-dependent fisheries and agricultural areas. On many days in 2015, emissions from the fires exceeded emissions from the whole US economy.

Curtailing fires is also a potential economic opportunity for Indonesia. The 2015 Paris climate agreement codified a provision called REDD+ through which rich countries would pay tropical countries such as Indonesia for verified reductions in emissions from deforestation, monitored by satellite. The 2010 Indonesia–Norway agreement provides a US$1 billion test of the REDD+ concept.

Indonesia pledged in 2015 to unconditionally reduce its emissions by 29 per cent below projected business-as-usual levels by 2030, or to reduce them by 41 per cent with international support. This amounts to 66–90 per cent reductions below 2010 levels — a climate commitment that is considerably stronger than those made by most other countries, and which is enabled by the availability of relatively feasible reductions from reducing deforestation. But there is already a speed bump — a planned financial instrument from the Ministry of Finance to channel international funds toward climate programs is not yet up and running.

To its credit, Indonesia has passed several important regulations on land use. In 2016, President Joko Widodo issued a moratorium on deforesting, draining and burning peat lands. The ban built on a 2011 moratorium halting new concession licenses for logging, oil palm and timber on primary forest or peat land. The moratorium has good potential to curb deforestation, especially if backed by prosecutions such as the case against PT Kallista Alam, a palm oil company, in 2015 that resulted in a 366 billion rupiah (US$27 million) fine for deliberately burning peatland. The Kallista case set a strong precedent for further court cases.

But the One Map initiative seeking to transparently clarify all company concessions in a single digital map was started in 2010 has yet to be released to the public. And progress to devolve forests from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to traditional communities, in response to a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling, has so far seen only 13,000 hectares released.

President Jokowi’s signature initiative in response to the 2015 fires was the creation of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG). Out of the 7 million hectares of peatland that has been converted nationwide, the BRG has a target of restoring 2 million hectares by 2020, through mapping, engineering and monitoring. But the BRG is hamstrung by a time-limited five-year mandate, fewer than 100 staff and an annual budget of less than 1 trillion rupiah (US$74 million). Institutionally, the BRG must rely on the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for budget authority, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing for dam maintenance and the police for enforcement.

Most large palm oil companies in Indonesia have signed pledges to eliminate deforestation from their commodity supply chains. Yet these companies have lashed back at new peatland regulations, and tracing the sustainability of palm oil supply chains back to the farm level has been difficult.

In spite of all the measures, Indonesia’s deforestation and associated emissions continue. Of course, Indonesia is hardly the only country whose climate commitments have been slow to translate into action. Rich countries pledged to mobilise US$100 billion per year by 2020 for climate but so far they’ve contributed a total of just US$10 billion to the Green Climate Fund. Finance for REDD+ languishes at only about US$1 billion per year. And the United States conspicuously isolated itself in June by backing away from its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

When it comes to climate change, Indonesia is far from alone in a trend of strong pronouncements with slow follow-through. That’s small comfort for people whose lungs are damaged by haze from the annual fires, or who live on island coastlines facing rising seas.

Armida S Alisjahbana is the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development Goals Studies at Padjadjaran University, West Java.

Jonah Busch is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC.

This article is based on their recent publication in the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies.

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