A new analysis of satellite data by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicates that 1.64 million hectares burned in fires that blazed this year across seven Indonesian provinces.
A total 76 percent of the fires occurred on “idle” land that used to be pristine forest, but, because of repeated burning, has been reduced to unproductive, degraded scrubland.
About 3 percent of the fires were on oil palm plantations and about the same percentage burned in the rainforests.
CIFOR, which is based in Bogor, Indonesia, says that 41 percent (670,000 hectares) of the total area burned was peatland, which plays a crucial role in storing carbon.
The results of the new analysis strengthen the case for mass reforestation of degraded peatlands in Indonesia, CIFOR says.
Peatland fires can smoulder underground for months, making them almost impossible to detect and extinguish, and they create significantly more smoke than other forest fires.
“The carbon-rich swamps become highly combustible when drained of water for conversion into commercial plantations, such as oil palm,” David Charles wrote in CIFOR’s Forests News.
“Forming over millenia, the ancient carbon locked in dense layers of peat is released on burning, causing CO2 levels to rise and contributing to global climate change.”
The 2019 fires have been compared to those in 2015, which were described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.
In 2015, 2.6 million hectares of forest, including peatland, burned. The fires were exacerbated by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused a prolonged dry season.
During this year’s fires, thousands of people viewed videos on social media that showed Jambi in Sumatra covered by a thick red-orange haze.
The red skies are caused by a phenomenon called Mie scattering, which occurs when a high concentration of pollutants scatters sunlight.
The Indonesian provinces hardest hit by the annual forest fires are Central Kalimantan, Jambi, Riau, West Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, and South Sumatra. Papua has also been affected.
76 percent of fires burned on ‘idle’ land
CIFOR says that its latest analysis dispels the prevailing view that rainforests suffered the most from the 2019 fires.
“While there has been much speculation in the news that the heavy fire season has taken a toll on the country’s remaining rainforests, there was no hard evidence to support that notion,” said David Gaveau, a landscape ecologist, and research associate at CIFOR.
CIFOR’s data show that between 3 and 3.6 percent of the 2019 fires burned in forested landscapes. This may seem a small percentage, CIFOR says, but it is still too much.
The CIFOR scientists found that 76 percent of burning occurred on idle land. These idle lands were pristine forest land several years ago and cycles of repeated burning have reduced them to unproductive, degraded scrubland.
CIFOR says that much of the deforested land remains undeveloped and persists in a “degraded and seasonally fire-prone state”.
This is particularly true on drained peatlands, CIFOR says. “Deforestation elevates local temperatures, reduces precipitation and limits soil moisture, heightening climatic variability, likelihood of drought, and influencing regional climate.
“The convergence of these trends with the frequent use of fire by humans, increases the frequency of fires.”
CIFOR says its findings strengthen the case for mass restoration of degraded idle peatlands back into fire-resistant ecosystems.
“In ecological terms, restoration means bringing back peatlands to their natural state by rewetting the peat and regenerating the original vegetation – returning them to their natural state as peat-swamp forests.”
Restoration should also aim to improve the welfare of people who live on peatlands, CIFOR says. “We need a paradigm shift. Massive investments in restoration, massive investments from banks to create an economy of restoration.”
The CIFOR scientists studied time-series imagery taken by the Sentinel-2 satellites between January 1 and October 31 this year and used the Google Earth Engine to conduct their analysis.
More than 400,000 hectares burned in Central Kalimantan
In Central Kalimantan this year, 447,000 hectares burned and 60 percent of this area was peatland.
The capital of Central Kalimantan, Palangkaraya, suffered the greatest air quality impact, CIFOR says. Residents suffered in pollution that reached one of the worse sustained levels ever recorded worldwide.
Sumarni Lama is coordinator for the nationwide Youth Act movement. She coordinated the work of volunteers fighting the fires and providing haze relief in Central Kalimantan. She told Changing Times during the fires that the whole of the province was burning.
It can take 4,000 litres of water to extinguish just one hotspot on peatland, Sumarni says.
In Palangkaraya this year, Sumarni says, air pollution reached a Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) level of 4,000, which is higher than that reached in 2015. (More than 300 is already considered to be hazardous to health.)
In 2015, levels in Palangkaraya exceeded 3,000. In the capital of Riau province, Pekanbaru, pollution hit levels of about 1,000 and, in 12 sub-districts, infants aged below six months were put into a special evacuation nursery in an air-conditioned city hall building.
The cities of Jambi and Palembang were also affected by extreme air pollution levels resulting from peatland fires in 2015. This year, Jambi and Palembang and Pekanbaru were subjected to similar levels of fire-induced toxic smoke, leading to higher than usual health risks.
The equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere during the 2015 fires, which represented half of the country’s total emissions in that year.
Researchers estimated that, on many days in September and October 2015, the CO2 emissions from the fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States.
‘ Burned peat-swamp forests will probably never recover’
In this year’s fires, up to 60,000 hectares of old-growth forest were impacted, mainly on peatlands, CIFOR says.
“These burned peat-swamp forests will probably never recover, and will be replaced by flammable scrublands, with consequences for local and global ecosystems.”
CIFOR says that, by establishing the Peatland Restoration Agency or Badan Restorasi Gambut (BRG) in 2016, Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, recognised the need to restore degraded peatlands on a large scale (2.67 million hectares) to prevent the reoccurrence of peatland fires.
“This year demonstrates that the problem remains,” CIFOR said. “An estimated 670,000 hectares burned on peat in BRG’s seven priority provinces for restoration.”
More than two decades of fire haze
The problem of pollution from forest fires has plagued Southeast Asia for more than two decades.
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.
Sumarni Lama, who is an indigenous Dayak, has suffered the pollution from forest fires for 22 years, since she was a baby. “After the haze stops we are still fighting for our lives as people still have health problems,” she said.
The pollution haze started this year in June and lasted for nearly four months, Sumarni told Changing Times. Unlike in 2015, when only certain parts of Central Kalimantan were affected, there were fires throughout the province.
During the 2015 fires, volunteers in Palangkaraya set up a haze shelter that was in operation 24/7 during this year’s fires. Locals were able to get respite from the choking pollution and obtain free medical check-ups and oxygen.
Volunteers also went out to villages to distribute N95 masks and provide medicines and vitamins. At least six thousand people in Central Kalimantan sought treatment in hospital in just the first two weeks of September because they were affected by the pollution, Sumarni says.
“And that’s only the people going to the hospital. Many people who were sick would not have gone to the hospital because it is too expensive for them, or there is no hospital in their area.”
For two weeks in September, the government declared a state of emergency in Central Kalimantan and the five other worst-hit provinces and people were given free medical check-ups if they had respiratory problems.
Sumarni was a volunteer firefighter. In September she was herself ill for a week because of the haze. “All of my body was in pain and it was very difficult to breathe. All of the team got sick, but we tried to stay strong.”
Volunteers in Central Kalimantan, who are already thinking about what they will face during next year’s haze, want the Indonesian government to name the companies responsible for land burning, and ensure that the punishments are severe, and provide health education and protection for local people, ensuring that they use proper N95 masks.
“The schools here were only closed for two weeks, and only after many children had already become ill,” Sumarni said.
The volunteers also want the government to clear the name of the Dayak farmers who have been blamed for burning land.
In a feature for Forests News, David Gaveau, Julie Mollins, Christopher Martius, and Robert Nasi wrote that the unusually dry weather across the Indonesian archipelago this year was not fully understood, but climate scientists said that the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD+), not the more familiar El Niño weather system, was likely to be responsible.
“IOD+ is a phenomenon that occurs when warm Pacific sea surface waters shift toward the Horn of Africa, leaving the Indonesian ocean colder than usual,” the CIFOR authors said. “Cold sea surface waters generate high pressure fronts, preventing the convection of water vapor into the atmosphere, which in turn prevents cloud formation and rainfall.”
Fires destroyed swathes of wildlife habitat
This year’s forest fires caused substantial damage to important wildlife habitats. Indonesian peatlands are precious ecosystems and are home to endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutans, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as critically endangered.
The habitat of endangered species, including three species of orangutan, burned in Kalimantan and in Sumatra.
This year, the provinces of Jambi and West Kalimantan experienced the highest number of fires on forested land: 21,400 hectares and 10,000 hectares respectively, CIFOR says.
Fires impacted 17,300 hectares in the Muaro Jambi district, mainly in and around the Berback National Park, which is important tiger habitat, and 5,800 hectares in Ketapang, mainly in the Sungai Putri forest, which is important orangutan habitat.
The Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) had a team of thirty people in the forest tackling the fires that threatened the largest population of Bornean orangutans in the world in the Sebangau ecosystem in Central Kalimantan.
The CEO of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), Jamartin Sihite, said at the time of the fires that a layer of thin smoke covered the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
“To avoid adverse effects on the orangutans undergoing rehabilitation, the medical team in Samboja Lestari has been providing a daily dose of milk and multivitamins for all orangutans in the centre, which now totals 130 individuals,” he said.
Outdoor activities at the Forest School for young orangutans were reduced to just a few hours and, for adult orangutans living in the socialisation cage complex, the Samboja Lestari technicians regularly sprayed the enclosures with water to keep them cool.
Fires burned in the Mawas working area, Sei Daha near the Tuanan Research Center, and in Sei Mantangai.
In the first week of August, a fire threatened the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, located near Palangkaraya. The blaze came as close as three hundred metres from the Nyaru Menteng outer fence. A team of BOSF staff working with other locals managed to extinguish the fire after four hours.
Some of the orangutans developed severe respiratory infections and were given nebulizer treatments, multivitamins, and antibiotics. Thirty seven young orangutans were suspected to have contracted a mild infection.
The Orangutan Project (OP) called for funds to help firefighters. “Indonesia is in the grip of another horrendous fire season and the impact on critically endangered orangutans is becoming catastrophic,” the OP said when the fires were at their height.
Teams from the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP) joined forces with personnel from the environment and forestry ministry and Indonesia’s national agency for disaster management to fight fires in the Labanan Forest in Kalimantan.
The organisation Orangutan Outreach set up an emergency fire fund to support the BNF, the BOSF, International Animal Rescue (IAR), and the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project (TORP).
“Palm oil companies and small landholders are setting fires that are burning out of control,” Orangutan Outreach said. “Many of the fires are perilously close to the orangutan rescue centers. BOSF Nyaru Menteng and IAR Ketapang are enveloped in smoke and haze, creating hazardous conditions for the orangutans and staff.
“The IAR team has been rescuing orangutans from burning forests and working frantically to keep the fires away from the centre. The BOSF has had to bring orangutans in from the islands due to extremely dry conditions and severe fire risk.”
During this year’s haze, schools were again forced to close in Indonesia and Malaysia, and planes were grounded because of poor visibility. Indonesia’s disaster management agency said that more than 900,000 people had suffered respiratory problems in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The young, the elderly, and those already unwell were the hardest hit.
More than 300,000 people are estimated to have succumbed to acute respiratory infections in the provinces of Riau and Jambi alone.
The fires were reported to have claimed the lives of two siblings aged seven and 11 in West Kalimantan province, a fire fighter in Jambi province, and at least six farmers in Riau, West Kalimantan, and Central Kalimantan.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that the toxic haze that blanketed large areas of Southeast Asia for months because of the fires put at least ten million children at risk of serious illness.
UNICEF was speaking specifically about the risks to children in Indonesia, where most of the forest fires occurred, but people in neighbouring Malaysia also suffered from the effects of the pollution. Singaporeans were also affected, but to a lesser degree.
Greenpeace calls for palm oil licences to be revoked
In September, Greenpeace accused Indonesia of failing to impose serious penalties on pulpwood and palm oil firms that had large fires on their land between 2015 and 2018.
“Despite the ongoing Indonesian forest fire crisis, no serious civil or administrative sanctions have been given to the ten palm oil companies with the largest areas of burned land from 2015 to 2018,” Greenpeace said.
“Furthermore, the Indonesian government has not revoked a single palm oil licence due to forest fires.”
Greenpeace says that, over the same period, the pulp sector also largely escaped serious government sanctions despite repeated fires across massive areas of land.
“Stopping this recurring fire crisis should have been at the top of the government’s agenda since 2015. But our findings show the reality: empty words and weak and inconsistent law enforcement against companies,” said the global head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forests campaign, Kiki Taufik.
“President Jokowi and his ministers must immediately remove licences from companies with fires on their land.”
A total 3.403 million hectares of land burned between the years 2015 and 2018 in Indonesia, according to analysis of official government burn scar data.
There is almost no evidence to suggest that the Indonesian government is applying the principle of strict liability against the companies and groups that had the largest burned areas of land or whose concessions burned most frequently, Greenpeace says.
This year, fire hot spots had been recorded in many of these same palm oil and pulp concessions.
In a petition on change.org, addressed to Malaysian and Indonesian ministers and signed by more than 26,000 people, there is a demand for the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to be held accountable “for their actions, or inactions, in response to the yearly haze crisis and environmental crisis”.
The crises are caused by “irresponsible land clearing practices by plantation owners, big and small, who conduct open burning of the forests in Indonesia and Malaysia”, the petition states.
“Haze in this region has contributed to deaths and illnesses of citizens,” it adds. “The forest fires have caused environmental degradation and the displacement and deaths of critically endangered wildlife such as orangutans.”
As the fires have occurred every year for more than two decades, the people of Indonesia and Malaysia have become desensitised to the issue, while not having the proper channels to voice their displeasure over the situation, the petition states.
It is the responsibility of both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to prioritise their citizens “instead of defending billion-dollar corporations that have held no accountability for committing crimes against the people and the environment”, it adds.
The petitioners demand that the issue of the forest fires and annual haze be included in the next general elections manifestos in Indonesia and Malaysia.
They also demand that the Malaysian government conduct a thorough, open investigation into the activities of the four companies that have been accused by Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, of deliberately carrying out open burning to clear land for palm oil plantations, and that the investigation be made public.
If these companies are liable, stern action should be taken against them, the petition states.
The four companies cited by Siti Nurbaya Bakar are Sime Darby Plantation, the IOI Corporation, TDM Berhad, and the Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.
Siti Nurbaya Bakar has also named the Singapore-affiliated, rubber-producing company Hutan Ketapang Industri, which is based in West Kalimantan and is a subsidiary of another Indonesian company, Sungai Menang, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Indonesia’s Sampoerna Agro.
Singapore-based Sampoerna Agri Resources Pte Ltd owns two-thirds of Sampoerna Agro.
On September 22, the Indonesian environmental news site foresthints published an article stating that fires were detected in Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and April Group concession areas.
Citing satellite data and information from the Indonesian government, the article said fires had been detected in APP concession areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The article stated that there was “undeniable evidence” that peat fires within and around the PT Wira Karya Sakti (WKS) pulpwood plantation concession owned by Asia Pulp and Paper had been escalating.
The concession, situated in Sumatra’s Jambi province, covers almost 300,000 hectares.
“This is not the first time that haze-causing peat fires have taken place in the PT WKS concession. Most of the same locations in the concession were afflicted by peat fires in 2015, for which the company was hit with a sanction from the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry,” the foresthints article stated.
“The peat fires are not just confined to the same locations affected in 2015, as other parts of the PT WKS concession are also burning. Legally, the APP company must take responsibility for any peat fires in its concession regardless of the cause.”
Foresthints says that, as of September 15, more than fifty companies had been sealed off by the Environment and Forestry Ministry. These included the WWF concession (PT ABT) as well as various Malaysian palm oil concessions.
The change.org petition demanded that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments investigate and publicly list, “all 29 companies and its directors who are involved in the open burning of forests to clear land for plantations that have caused the haze and environmental crisis, and conduct enforcements to bring these companies to justice”.
CIFOR says more must be done to engage communities in peatland restoration. The Peatland Restoration Agency has begun doing this, it says, with its Peat Care Village Programme.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which oversees peatland restoration and firefighting, is engaging village communities with the Fire Concerned Community Programme.
“This effort recognises that more must be done to ensure the full participation of communities, local government, and plantation companies to achieve long-term successful rewetting, revegetation, and revitalisation of degraded idle peatlands,” CIFOR said.
In practice, peatland restoration is difficult to achieve, CIFOR says, as it would require phasing out several million hectares of existing and lucrative oil palm and acacia plantations on drained deep peat.
Other “peat-friendly” economic activities on peat that do not require intensive draining like sago, pineapple, paludiculture, or agroforestry are less profitable.
“For many, restoration simply means rewetting the peat with canal blockings without changing the current dominant land use: palm oil and acacia plantations,” CIFOR said.
CIFOR says that the fires in Papua are not a serious concern. Eighteen percent of the burning occurred in the Trans-fly ecoregion, in the Merauke district in the southern part of the province of Papua.
The fires burned natural grasslands, including in the Pulau Dolok Wildlife Reserve.
“This region is remote and has a seasonally dry climate,” CIFOR said. “Fire has shaped this natural ecosystem over hundreds of years, and therefore should not be considered a concern. Most habitats are intact and have not yet become impacted by human activities and extractive industries.”
Headline photo: fires in the Mawas area of Central Kalimantan.