Research aids battle against carbon-emitting forest fires

The hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s forest fire hotspot provinces of Riau, Jambi and East and Central Kalimantan have reduced, not because of the choking smoke from forest fires, but due to fear of COVID-19 infection, mobility restrictions and community forestry activism.

Most forest fires in Indonesia’s tropical rain forest are sparked by humans, either due to arson or carelessness, according to forestry researchers. COVID-19 and a raft of government measures have led to a major drop in forest fires. Such fires also affect air quality in other parts of Southeast Asia and contribute to global warming.

“The scale and frequency of forest fires have steadily been decreasing during the last two years,” said Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, senior lecturer and green activist at the Jakarta-based Universitas Nasional.

During 2019, at least 1.6 million hectares of forest cover were lost to fire in Indonesia. In 2020, it was not more than 300,000 hectares. “The decline is up to 80% compared to the previous year,” Mangunjaya told University World News.

This is important not just because of the destruction, biodiversity damage, displacement and health issues that arise from forest fires, but also because of the decline in carbon emissions from fires which contribute to climate change. For example, intense forest fires over just six weeks in 2015 made Indonesia the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter that year.

Under the Paris climate change accord, Indonesia is committed to reducing 29% of its carbon emissions unconditionally by 2030, and 41% on condition of receiving international help. Around half of Indonesia’s emissions are related to deforestation, peatland degradation and fires.

Mangunjaya said bringing down the general deforestation rate, including deforestation from forest conversion, logging and fires, has lowered Indonesia’s carbon emissions by 11.2 million tons of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) during 2016-17. The figure has been verified by international organisations.

Forestry moratorium and research

Several measures helped reduce the deforestation rate, he said. “One of the main factors is the forestry moratorium, which put a stop to logging and new investment in plantations,” he said.

The government’s forestry moratorium first came into effect in 2011 for a two-year period. It was extended for another three years and then made permanent in 2019.

Mangunjaya believes efforts to reduce national carbon emissions and restore forests will not be reversed. Nonetheless, he said, “we are now struggling to meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement [on climate change], under which we agreed to reduce our carbon emissions by 41% by 2030.”

Indonesia aims to limit deforestation to between 325,000 and 450,000 hectares (800,000 to 1.1 million acres) a year, a level it believes will still allow economic development.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, co-chair of the IPB-Maryland University peat fire research project at the state-run Bogor Agricultural University, said better control of forest fires during the last three years can be attributed to improved use and implementation of research into past forest fires.

Indonesian forest fire management was not previously based on forest fire research, “making effective action against forest fires very weak”, he said.

Now, even court proceedings on forest fire cases require scientific research to prove whether or not an area of forest has been burnt intentionally, noted Saharjo.

In 2019 Saharjo was awarded the John Maddox Prize for his courage and integrity in standing up for sound science in the face of harassment, intimidation and lawsuits. “I survive lawsuits, intimidation by big corporations by relying on research,” he told University World News.

“I prove cases of forest fires by research; by using scientific method, so the sources of data and information are valid and verifiable. I utilise satellite images and monitoring and I make on-the-spot and real-time reconstructions. It’s all open to assessment and verification by any parties.”

Saharjo’s latest research concludes that most of the fires that have occurred in the tropical rain forest are man-made and that forest and peatland fires lead to “uncontrollable” greenhouse gas emissions.

But he said calculations of greenhouse gas emissions in peatland forests have also been overestimated in the past. “A burning peatland forest releases less CO2 emissions than [burning] dry forest land because, by nature, peatland forest is moist and wet. But previous calculation methods treated the two as the same thing,” he explained.

“This happened because some of the greenhouse gas emission calculation parameters used did not originate from the location where the fire occurred,” Saharjo said, underlining the importance of on-site investigations.

Indonesia is home to around 36% of the world’s tropical forest peatlands, which can store huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Apart from releasing greenhouse gasses, burning peatlands produce pollution that is more damaging to health than forest fires, according to research by Greenpeace.

Coordination on forest fires

Saharjo said coordination and communication between central and local government in dealing with forest fires have improved.

The present grand design for forest fire control ensures that 2.4 million hectares of peatlands are under the Peatland Restoration Agency, a government agency set up after being proposed by a number of academic and forestry experts. It also ensures that 731 villages identified as fire-prone can be safe from forest fires.

“The government established the executive unit for environment and forestry law enforcement in a number of administration areas, such as Java, Sumatra, East Nusa Tenggara, to ensure that the regulations are effective,” Saharjo told University World News, referring to 2015 regulations on the utilisation and conversion of forest areas, and 2013 regulations on illegal logging.

In 2016 “the government also set up offices of climate change control in local regions and established a peatland and mangrove restoration body to work on restoration of damaged peatland and mangroves caused by the 2015 forest fires,” he said.

Along with the new institutions, many lawyers, the police and Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission work in synergy. “Some arrests have been made for environmental law violations,” Saharjo noted.

Local communities

Another factor in slowing the deforestation rate is growing awareness of the vital value of forests among communities living around the forest. “This is partly due to public education championed by universities,” said Mangunjaya, who is also head of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Universitas Nasional.

“Our study centres regularly do research and recommend actions. We found that local villagers and communities are the main guardians for keeping forests in good shape. So we inform them about the intrinsic value of the trees, animals, forest cover, biodiversity and healthy ecosystem of the forest. It has paid off,” he added.

Mangunjaya said his institution regularly organises training for local Imams who spread knowledge, information and Islamic teaching about the nature and environment to their jama’ah (congregation) in public speeches and Friday sermons.

“In villages, people listen to their Imams, not to academics or scientists,” he said, adding that most of the religious congregation members are people who seek to live in the forest and have been used to clearing land through burning to prepare land for farming.

Norway agreement ended

Bringing down the deforestation rate is also part of Indonesia’s commitment under the 2010 Indonesia-Norway agreement. Norway agreed to pay US$56 million in a so-called result-based payment incentive to Indonesia, based on its 2016-17 results on curbing deforestation under a United Nations-backed forest conservation scheme known as REDD+.

But as Mangunjaya pointed out, Norway has yet to fulfil its commitment to pay the money, “which is actually long overdue”.

According to Indonesian officials, the Norwegian government imposed prolonged consultations and discussions on its commitment, causing Indonesia to end the agreement last month.

In a statement on 11 September, Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said it had decided to terminate the agreement due to “the lack of concrete progress on the implementation of the obligation of the government of Norway”.

Green activists worry that the termination will mean the deforestation rate will return to the high levels of the past. But Saharjo maintains that such fears are “unreasonable”.

“We have been committed to deforestation reduction and struggled for it long before the Indonesia-Norway forestry pact,” he said. “Efforts to protect the forest, environment and the ecosystem will carry on. It’s a timeless commitment.”

And to achieve that, Saharjo said, research would be the main tool.