Addressing the Complex Causes of Forest Fires
Every year, Indonesia and its neighbors brace for the fire season. As well as the risk to health encased by the resulting haze, the fires have created diplomatic tension in the region. Government and business have responded quickly and with affect, so why does the problem persist?
Agus Purnomo from the National Council on Climate Change addresses this question in an Opinion-Editorial piece published in the Jakarta Globe on 18 September 2014:
To Reduce Haze and Save Indonesia’s Forests, Address the Root Cause of Fires
The Jakarta Globe
18 Sep 2014
Over the past few months we have seen heated debates over the problem of Indonesian forest fires and the associated haze in neighboring countries like Singapore. A new law in Singapore permits the prosecution of companies deemed to be responsible for causing such fires, and speculation about how the El Nino phenomenon might lead to particularly intense fires in the next month have drawn global attention to the issue.
Three years ago, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made a pledge to dedicate the remainder of his term in office to protect Indonesia’s environment and forests. Over the last three years he has done just that — with the historic moratorium on new logging concessions implemented in 2011, which has since been extended to May 2015. This policy has helped to protect more than 63 million hectares of primary forest and peat land, equivalent to an area larger than the landmass of Malaysia and the Philippines combined, and helped to lower Indonesia’s deforestation rate from 1.2 million hectares per year between 2003 and 2006, to between 450 and 600 thousand hectares per year since 2011. We also see the private sectors in the region stepping up their zero-deforestation commitments, including from the pulp and paper and palm oil industries.
As we look forward to the new government taking office in October, it is worthwhile reflecting on the legacy that President Yudhoyono will leave behind, and what remains to be done to protect Indonesia’s forests — and the environment not just in Indonesia, but in our region as a whole.
Forest fires pose a real danger, not only to our environment but to the economy as well. In 2013, Sumatra faced the worst case of forest fires in the last decade. The fires were a disaster that disrupted the lives and damaged the health of the local population, paralyzed transportation and communications vital to daily lives and services that businesses depend on, and hampered children’s access to schools. We are also acutely conscious of the power of fire and haze to do damage across our borders. During the Forest Asia Summit in Jakarta in May this year, ministers and business and civil society leaders from across the region pledged to work together to find a collective solution to this shared challenge.
There is no doubt that we all want to stop these fires, and the damage they cause. The government of Indonesia has taken some action, to help those affected and also to target those responsible. Last year, the president deployed a disaster relief mission in Riau province, coupled by strong law enforcement actions against those responsible for deliberately setting fires. The work of NGOs such as the World Resources Institute, in helping to identify the location of hotspots and thereby to help early response and suppression of fires, is important in this respect.
However, locating the hotspots does not mean we can identify the perpetrators since fires, especially during extreme weather, can spread underground for several kilometers in peat lands.
The causes of forest fires are complex. They originate in the most basic problems of poverty and unemployment, the challenges Indonesia has been tackling for decades. In most cases, forest fires are initiated to clear land for agricultural purposes since it is the cheapest way of doing so. Farmers often do not understand the damage they are doing when using fire. It is easy to point the finger at big business, but in reality it makes little sense for them to burn their own plantations and crops. These businesses are just as threatened by the fires as the rest of us. A recent analysis by CIFOR, released in July, shows just how complex the issue of forest fires is, as it is entangled with issues such as land use and land tenure.
So while legislation, law enforcement and aid are useful tools, what we really need is to work together to develop a sustainable, long-term solution to forest fires, which requires addressing the fundamental problems of poverty and unemployment.
The solution to this challenge isn’t something that the government can achieve alone, nor can we expect private business and concession holders to solve this issue singlehandedly. Instead, we need to take collective responsibility for our resources, environment and quality of life. All parties — industries, NGOs, communities — must come together with the government to ensure that the steps taken to address this challenge be delivered. Ultimately, the solutions must provide a sustainable future for all or we will fail in our mission.
The new law in Singapore has the potential to the reduce the number of fires set, although with the jurisdiction limitations it may only discourage the financiers of new plantations. On preventing the use of matches, the Indonesian laws are the ultimate deterrent factor. Indonesian laws are not only targeting those who start the fires, but also the concessionaires who fail to put out fires in their respective areas. Unfortunately, putting people in jail can only reduce the number of perpetrators but not the incidents, since there are more people who will take the risks of being caught using fires to save a few thousands dollars. Therefore the central tenet of our work should be about creating prosperity for everyone, in a way that does not harm the natural environment upon which we all depend.
Agus Purnomo is special assistant to the president of Indonesia and head of the secretariat of the National Council on Climate Change. He was an environmental activist for 25 years before joining the government. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the offices where he works.
Link to the article: