As fires rage, academics call for better forest protection

Academic experts say better monitoring and protection of Indonesian forests are needed to deal with forest and peat fires, which are currently generating air pollution in the form of a transboundary haze that has closed schools and is straining Indonesia’s relations with its neighbours.

Forest and peat fires are an annual problem in Indonesia. However, this year’s fires have generated the highest levels of air pollution since a significant transboundary haze in 2019. Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are unhappy about the health risk posed by the air pollution, not to mention the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

On 13 October the Indonesian government denied that forest and peat fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan were causing the haze after the Malaysian government sent a letter complaining about the air quality and asked for the two countries to work together to deal with the fires.

Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, were recently ranked among the world’s top five most polluted cities by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

While schools have been closed this month in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province and an emergency declared in Central Kalimantan due to the fires, Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar was quoted in Associated Press as saying: “There is no transboundary haze. No cross-border smoke. I don’t know what basis Malaysia uses to make these statements”.

Lack of preparation

However, Bambang Hero Saharjo, a professor of forest protection at Institut Pertanian Bogor, a state-run agricultural university, said the authorities should have been better prepared. Instead, they blamed the fires on the El Niño phenomenon.

Indonesia’s rainy season has been delayed by many weeks this year due to a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, which cools water in the eastern Indian Ocean, combined with El Niño, which warms the water in the Pacific. This combination has reduced the formation of rain clouds, according to meteorologists.

El Niño effects contributed to devastating fires in Indonesia in 2015. But Saharjo, who is a renowned Indonesian expert on forest fires and the implementation of environmental laws, said the El Niño phenomenon was no longer an excuse for the present fires because the relevant ministry officials knew about the natural phenomenon well in advance and should have taken pre-emptive measures to prevent forest fires.

The country has introduced policies to ban burning and other measures to prevent conflagrations. However, “forest fire control is very weak, from the top to the lowest level,” Saharjo told University World News on 18 October.

He said some districts are unable to respond to fires, and others even ignore them. Fires are not a priority for local authorities due to lack of a budget, Saharjo said.

The government held a national meeting on forest fires at the end of last year. “But they observed that forest fires [had been] relatively under control during the last three years, because the dry season was moderate. So, they were carried away with the situation, not knowing that this time would be different,” he said.

“The national meeting should have checked, evaluated and monitored our preparedness to deal with the 2023 El Niño. But they were too comfortable, seeing the upcoming forest fires as ‘business as usual’, which, in fact, it is not,” Saharjo said.

Thousands of forest fires

Hundreds of forest fires have broken out in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province, creating columns of smoke that spread across a wide area during the past week. The local government closed schools and imposed ‘Learning from Home’, or online learning, due to the worsening air quality and risk to children’s health.

On 6 October, several districts in Central Kalimantan declared a state of emergency due to forest and land fires. The region’s governor, Sugianto Sabran, said the air pollution index reached hazardous levels on 3 October, with visibility dropping to less than 1,500 metres on 2 October due to thick smoke.

“Data collected from 1 January to 2 October revealed a concerning total of 38,104 detected hotspots in the region. This has led to 3,230 recorded instances of forest and land fires, with firefighting efforts successfully extinguishing 9,137 hectares of affected land,” he said in a statement.

The Indonesian Environment and Forest Ministry’s forest fire monitoring system shows 267,000 hectares of forest in Riau, a province on the central eastern coast of Sumatra Island, has burned since August. This is greater than the 2022 forest fire that burned 204,894 hectares of forest, though still below 2021, when 358,000 hectares of forest was incinerated.

But according to Saharjo, the current fires are continuing and will likely have burned an area larger than the 2021 fires by the time the October report of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is issued.

Known for his work in enforcing environmental and forestry laws, Saharjo said a greater cause for concern is that the present forest fires are mostly occurring in conservation areas, designated to absorb carbon emissions, maintain the ecosystem and preserve biodiversity, in part because conservation is being done badly and without proper monitoring.

Jim Ghofur, head of the emergency division of the Riau Regional Body for Disaster Management, said that between January and October just over 1,184 hectares of forest were burnt in Riau. “This figure is relatively low compared to previous years, because the government is always prepared to take action,” he maintained. However, his figures are based on the assumption that forest fires in some areas under his administration have been totally extinguished.

Saharjo led forest fire control in Riau in 2019, a year which saw major conflagrations. He found that of 17 companies he verified, not a single one complied with the forest fire prevention regulations.

He led a team called Unit Kerja Presiden Bidang Pengawasan dan Pengendalian Pembangunan (the President Work Unit for Development Management and Assessment). “Now that team is dissolved and so has the monitoring and evaluation work,” he said.

The problem with peat fires

Fires are also difficult to extinguish because of the large peat deposits in these areas that can fuel smouldering fires for months. Peatland fires are difficult to control and produce more smoke.

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 gases, burning peatlands produces pollution that is more damaging to health than forest fires, according to research.

Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, a senior lecturer at Jakarta-based Universitas Nasional, said current forest fires require closer monitoring and supervision due to the longer, more extreme dry season caused by El Niño.

In this extreme heat forest fires can happen without human action due to peatland’s propensity to catch fire, he told University World News.

“What is happening is the extreme heat of El Niño meets with vulnerable peatland. Just a little friction on the peatland surface can trigger a fire. And in this prolonged drought and extreme heat, the fire can very easily spread.

“That’s why peatland is very important. That’s also the reason we established the Badan Restorasi Gambut (Peatland Restoration Body),” he said.

Fachruddin said that peatland in fact has a naturally occurring system that protects it from fire. In normal conditions, the peatland’s surface is covered by swamps, which keeps the grass that grows on it wet and humid. With high temperatures, these swamps can dry up and the peatland surface dries out. “These are the conditions when fire is easily ignited,” he explained.

Since 2016, the Peatland Restoration Body kept peatland surfaces wet and humid by constructing water channels on them. “But it should be verified whether the canals are still there. I just assume they are not well-maintained,” he said.

“If peatland surface is totally dry, then forest fires are simply unavoidable. I have called for better care for peatlands as an important part of preventing forest fires,” Fachruddin said.