Forest fires are burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and in parts of Indonesian Borneo, causing untold damage to an already fragile environment and wreaking havoc with people’s health.
There are no accurate statistics about the number of deaths caused by haze pollution in Southeast Asia, but there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands.
The US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) says the fires are again threatening some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in Indonesia – the country’s forests and peatlands.
The greatest concentration of fire alerts is again in the Riau province of Sumatra, the WRI says. A rash of fires are burning in the Tesso Nilo National Park, which is one of the last large areas of lowland tropical rainforest in Indonesia and is home to critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers.
The WRI called on Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, to take swift action and strengthen the protection of forests under the country’s national moratorium.
“Now is also a good time for President Jokowi to revisit his November 2014 promise to review all permits issued on Riau’s peatland, and terminate those found to be damaging the ecosystem,” the institute said.
In the week up to July 1, 69 fire alerts were detected in the Tesso Nilo national park. Seven were “high-confidence” alerts, likely to be associated with forest burning during land clearing for agriculture.
“Other fire alerts that do not meet the high confidence fire criteria are still likely to be fires, but are more likely associated with burning fields or grass, or other conditions that result in lower-temperature fires,” the WRI stated.
The Tesso Nilo national park, which covers about 83,000 hectares, has been significantly damaged by illegal encroachment in recent years.
The park lost more than half of its tree cover between 2001 and 2013, according to Global Forest Watch data. Since 2000, more than 47,000 hectares of tree cover have been cleared, making way for oil palm plantations and other development, the WRI says.
According to NASA fire alerts on the Global Forest Watch Fires platform, there have been 185 alerts since the fires broke out in Tesso Nilo on May 29, 2015. Of these, 47 have been high-confidence fire alerts.
There was a major outbreak of fires in the park in 2013.
Riau province has the highest concentration of land under oil palm cultivation in Indonesia, accounting for 25 percent of national production.
The forest fires are an annual occurrence in Indonesia and, every year, choking pollution from the fires spreads as far as neighbouring Malaysia. The haze causes innumerable health problems ranging from asthma, breathing problems, and headaches to skin rashes and lung, eye, and skin problems.
Greenpeace says that modelling by researchers in 2012 attributed an average of 110,000 deaths a year in Riau to peat and forest fires.
“These deaths are primarily associated with long-term seasonal exposure to smoke particles,” said the forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Yuyun Indradi. “This increases to nearly 300,000 deaths during an El Niño year.”
This year is an El Niño year and there have been warnings that the 2015 dry season could last longer because of this.
In recent years, Singapore and Thailand have also been affected. In 2013, the pollution was so severe that states of emergency were declared in several areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, and Singapore recorded the the highest level of pollution in the country’s history.
The WRI says that, in Riau, fire has long been used as a fast and inexpensive way to clear land and prepare it for planting. “Fires are not a natural occurrence in Indonesian forests and rarely occur unless they are ignited by people. Although it is illegal to set fires, except for areas used for smallholder agriculture, burning is widely used across Riau province in conjunction with the conversion of forests to palm oil or wood fiber plantations as a cheaper alternative to mechanical clearing. All fires within protected areas are illegal.”
Research from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicates that determining the exact cause of the fires is complex, the WRI adds. Fires often occur outside of concession boundaries or in concession areas operated by smallholder farmers.
According to NASA’s Active Fire Data on the Global Forest Watch Fires platform, half of the fire alerts in Riau province are occurring in protected areas or those where new development is prohibited under Indonesia’s national forest moratorium.
“An alarming 38 percent of Riau’s fire alerts are on carbon-rich peatlands, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and fuelling global climate change,” the WRI said.
Fires in Jambi
According to the Jakarta Post, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency in Jambi, Sumatra, spotted 29 wildfires across the province on Tuesday.
In the city of Pekanbaru in Riau, locals are already wearing masks as smoke starts to pollute the air, the Post reported.
The Post quoted the conservation initiative, the Muarojambi Bersepakat Movement, in Jambi as saying on Tuesday that fires had started in the Pematang Damar forest, which is a conservation area for rare orchid species. About 10 hectares had already burned, the report said.
The movement’s deputy chairman, Adi Ismanto, was quoted as saying: “The Pematang Damar forest is surrounded by fire. Unless something is done about it, the forest will be burned to the ground in just a few days.”
The West Kalimantan Provincial Natural Resources Conservation Agency had spotted nine hot spots in that region on Sunday, the Post said.
There was heavy pressure on Indonesia after the haze crises in 2013 and 2014 and the country finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution last September.
The WRI says forest protection regulations are not being properly enforced. The location of the alerts reveal “regulatory and enforcement weaknesses”, the institute says.
As part of the national forest moratorium, Indonesia’s former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, prohibited the issuance of new development licences in key forest areas, a commitment that was extended in May this year by President Jokowi. “It’s clear that this regulation isn’t being properly enforced,” the WRI stated.
“Likewise, many loopholes in the moratorium, such as allowing for the clearing of moratorium areas for food and energy crop development, have been widely criticized.”
The WRI says that protected areas are not being adequately overseen. This, it says, is a pervasive problem in Indonesia, and has been particularly devastating to Tesso Nilo.
“Forest Management Units, governed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, often do not have the capacity or resources to prevent encroachment of agriculture and other forest users.”
The WRI points to the example of Tesso Nilo. “Tesso Nilo is legally registered as a protected area, meaning that timber extraction and clearing of forest for agriculture are not allowed in the park. The fact that so much tree cover has been lost in recent years shows a lack of law enforcement.
“While the moratorium has prevented establishment of new concessions in the area, it’s not well understood or enforced in many locations.”
The Indonesian government could show that it is serious about its forestry laws by cracking down on illegal fires in Tesso Nilo and other areas, the WRI says. “High-resolution images can give the sort of detailed evidence needed for law enforcement officials to investigate illegal burning. And the Indonesian government could do so while still promoting oil palm development on already degraded lands outside of protected areas.”
Government agencies and law enforcement bodies need to act in unison against illegal land burning, the WRI says. “The UKP4 task force established in 2014, but later disbanded, played an important leadership role in curbing fires and bringing legal action against perpetrators. Creating a similar task force today would be an important step in demonstrating that combating fires and enforcing the forest moratorium is a priority for Indonesia’s new leadership.”
In October and November 1997, the haze from fires in Indonesia spread as far the Philippines to the north, Sri Lanka to the west, and northern Australia to the south. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, there was a pollution index reading of 860.
An Air Pollutant Index reading of 301 or more is considered to be hazardous, 201 to 300 is very unhealthy, 101 to 200 is unhealthy, 51 to 100 is moderate, and zero to 50 is rated as good. A sustained reading of above 400 can be life-threatening to ill and elderly people.
In June 2013, air pollution levels hit 401 in Singapore and reached 746 in Muar in Malaysia’s Johar state.
It was estimated that half of the blazes in 2013 started on oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
The WRI says that, in 2014, 66 percent of the fire alerts occurred within the boundaries of oil palm, logging, and pulpwood concessions.
The WRI has called on the public to help monitor the fires in Indonesia by going to the GFW Fires website. Information on Riau fire alerts can be tweeted using #EyesOnRiau.
Users can track forest fires and haze in the ASEAN region. If you click on the “sign up for alerts” button, you can get automatic email or SMS notifications of fire alerts in specific areas.
Headline photo by Rini Sulaiman from the Norwegian Embassy for the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).