Domestic Problem, Global Effects
BY JIAJENE LEE
Forest fires in Indonesia have haunted the nation for over two decades, causing massive destruction in their wake. NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) estimated that the fires have released the equivalent of 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere until 16 November 2015, far surpassing Germany and Japan’s 2013 CO2 emissions according to the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). The magnitude of the crisis can be further illustrated in the graph below, where daily emissions due to Indonesian forest fires exceed the daily average of the entire U.S. economy (Harris et al. 2015).
Loss of Biodiversity
About 2.6 million hectares of land burned in Indonesia in 2015 alone (World Bank, 2015). This figure far exceeds that of Brazil, a country historically known for its highest tropical deforestation rate in the world, having lost 460000 hectares of rainforest in 2012 (Margono et al. 2014). The long term costs of the 2015 forest fires have yet to be fully established. For now Indonesia will bear the loss of timber and ultimately the destruction of the natural habitat for several endangered tropical species.
Animals lose their habitats when their homes are converted into commercial agricultural land. The loss would thus lead to the shrinking of animal populations as what remains of the uncleared rainforests is insufficient to support refugee animals on top of the current population of resident animals. With the wildfires set by small scale farmers and forestry companies, animals are being burned alive as they flee or are eventually killed when they encroach on farmlands or plantations that were once their natural habitat. The flora and fauna in Indonesia are among the five most diverse in the world yet the country ranks third in terms of number of species threatened at 772 species (Orangutan Foundation International, 2015).
Initial estimates by the Indonesian government indicate that the crisis will set the country back by 475 trillion rupiah ($47 billion) (Chan, 2015). 385 billion rupiah of allocated funding from the Indonesian government to combat forest fires may have all been used up according to Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB). The government even had to dip into a 2.5 trillion “on-call fund” originally prepared for other types of disasters (Chan, 2015). These are figures from Indonesia only.
Taking into account the disruptions to daily life in other Southeast Asian nations – loss of productivity as businesses forced to close, flight cancellations and delays, lost tourism – although too soon to be assessed, the total economic cost will definitely be more than $47 billion.
The effects of the Indonesian forest fires extend further than just monetary loss. An obvious consequence is the transboundary haze engulfing Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and even Vietnam. At the height of the crisis, the Air Pollutant Index (API) reading in central Kalimantan, Indonesia exceeded the 2,000 mark (anything above 300 is considered hazardous and schools are forced to close with much lower readings) (Bernama, 2015). A reported 19 people have died due to toxic fumes produced by the fires and an estimated 500000 people have sought medical aid for eye and respiratory irritations (Agence France-Presse, 2015a).
Strained Diplomatic Ties
Relations between Southeast Asian countries affected by the transboundary haze are tense. The indifference of some Indonesian officials does little to defuse these tense ties, especially among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (Javadi and Han, 2015). In response to neighbouring countries’ complaints about the haze, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said, “For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset,” (Setuningsih, 2015).
Who is to blame?
According to Vice President Kalla, ‘foreign demand and foreign technology’ should be blamed for the forest fires (The Straits Times, 2015). To a certain extent, this is true as many Western companies are at the end of the palm oil supply chain (Pilloud, 2015). One of the leading producers of oil palm in the world, Indonesian plantations usually resort to illegal open burning to cheaply clear land. It costs USD150 to clear a hectare of land by legal means whereas through burning, it would only cost USD7 (Clifford, 2015).
Unfortunately, the rainforests that cover Indonesia are peatlands unlike typical forests, which are made up of underbush. Peat are great stores of carbon and Indonesian peats store up to 60 billion metric tons (Talocchi, 2014). Usually impossible to set alight as peatlands are saturated with water and decayed matter, unethical companies now drain peat to convert them into lucrative agricultural land through slash-and-burn methods. More often than not, this deliberate burning to forests engulfs more land than initially planned.
Effects of Nature
Jusuf Kalla further deflects the blame by placing responsibility on the wind for the spread of the transboundary haze. Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit, Kalla stated, “We don’t want the haze going everywhere, but the wind we can’t control.” (Matsuzawa, 2015) Indeed, Typhoon Koppu in the Philippines may have contributed to the spread of haze as the direction of wind changes hence drawing it towards northern Philippines and Singapore (Agence France-Presse, 2015b).
He also mentioned that El Nino exacerbated the crisis. El Nino, a natural phenomenon that causes ocean surface temperatures to rise, changes wind patterns. In Indonesia, El Nino delayed the annual rainy season. Coupled with exceptionally dry weather, peatlands and rainforests were more susceptible to fires, though without human activity, ‘extreme fire seasons’ would not exist (Field et al., 2009).
Nonetheless, it is important to note that corruption and inherent weaknesses in the decentralisation of regional governance allowed the crisis to happen in the first place while the wind and El Nino only worsened the situation (Bland, 2013). Locally elected public officials lord over land allocated to them and most lease them to plantation companies at the expense of the environment. Enforcement of laws is mostly non-existent in these fiefdoms although legal measures are present (Johnson, 2015). For instance, despite the incumbent government issuing a forest moratorium, 60% of local government officials understand the types of land protected and only 37% of them know which areas are protected (Alisjahbana and Austin, 2014). If Indonesia wants to institute lasting reforms in combating forest fires, law enforcement should be their top priority on top of regulating burning activities.
Thankfully, Joko Widodo’s government has taken the pioneering step of launching investigations into companies suspected of being involved in illegal fires. Authorities have also arrested hundreds of individuals allegedly connected to open burning activities. Other mitigation measures taken by the government include the construction of canals that cut through peatlands to hinder the spread of wildfire and the deployment of 26000 troops as well as 30 aircraft to extinguish fires (Gokkon, 2015).
Indonesia also finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution on 16 September 2014, 12 years after it was created. The aim of the agreement is to encourage ASEAN nations to cooperate to reduce haze pollution. The ratification and enforcement of the agreement would make it more likely for authorities to hold those who carry out slash-and-burn activities accountable as well as minimising fire incidents (Johnson, 2014).
Tired of the transboundary haze, Singapore also joined in on the action by serving Preventive Measures Notices to firms suspected of starting fires. Under Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, the National Environment Agency (NEA) took the proactive step of issuing notices to five companies by the end of September 2015 (Scawen, 2015). The notices request offending companies to discontinue and extinguish fires. If found guilty under the act, firms can be fined USD71000 a day, with a total cap of USD1.4 million (Channel News Asia, 2015).
The haze is gone for now thanks to persistent rain in Indonesia throughout October and November. However, this may be short-lived. Come March 2016, this episode of fiery chaos might return with the dry season if the government does not take sufficient preventive measures to combat its long running problems of poor law enforcement as well as corruption.
Agence France-Presse, 2015a. ‘Indonesia forest fires: Widodo to visit stricken regions as death toll mounts’, October 28. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/28/indonesia-forest-fires-widodo-visit-stricken-regions-death-toll-mounts [26 December 2015]
Agence France-Presse, 2015b ‘Indonesian haze reaches southern Philippines’, October 23. Available at: http://news.yahoo.com/indonesian-haze-reaches-southern-philippines-080106025.html [23 December 2015]
Alisjahbana, A. and Austin, K. 2014 ‘2 Things You Need to Know about Indonesia’s Forest Moratorium’ January 30. Available at: http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/01/2-things-you-need-know-about-indonesias-forest-moratorium [28 December 2015]
Bernama, 2015. API reading in Palangkaraya, Indonesia exceeds 2,000. [online]. Available at: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2015/10/04/api-indonesia-2000/ [27 December 2015]
Bland, B. 2013 ‘Indonesian fires highlight weak governance and corruption’, June 23. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a6d8c050-dbf5-11e2-a861-00144feab7de.html#axzz3va63vtMX [28 December 2015]
Chan, F. 2015 ‘$47b? Indonesia counts costs of haze’, October 11. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/47b-indonesia-counts-costs-of-haze [26 December 2015]
Channel News Asia, 2015. ‘NEA issues notice to fifth Indonesian company over haze’ September 30. Available at: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nea-issues-notice-to/2160760.html [28 December 2015]
Clifford, M.L. 2015 ‘Indonesia’s Forest Fires Choke Malaysia, Singapore: ‘Burning Land….Just for Fun’’, September 10. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mclifford/2015/09/10/indonesias-forest-fires-choke-malaysia-singapore-burning-land-just-for-fun/ [27 December 2015]
Field, et al., 2009. Human amplification of drought-induced biomass burning in Indonesia since 1960. Nature Geoscience 2, pp. 185-188.
Gokkon, B. 2015 ‘Haze is Gone but Answers Remain Thin’, December 14. Available at: http://jakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/news/haze-gone-answers-remain-thin/ [21 December 2015]
Harris, N., Minnemeyer, S., Stolle, F. and Payne, O.A. 2015 ‘Indonesia’s Fire Outbreaks Producing More Daily Emissions than Entire US Economy’, October 16. Available at: http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/10/indonesia%E2%80%99s-fire-outbreaks-producing-more-daily-emissions-entire-us-economy [21 December 2015]