By Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher, Hawaii Opinion, Jakarta Post July 5
The smoke rising from fires in Sumatra can be seen from outer space. Air pollution in Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia has spiked, reaching levels hazardous to human health. Although the fires are of immediate concern at the regional level, they are quite disconcerting at the global scale.
The fires originate in one of Earth’s carbon super-sinks: peat swamps. Hidden underneath Sumatra’s lowland rain forests are thousands of years of partially rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water.
This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia’s peatlands are drained and burned, one of the world’s greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source.
Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between .81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth’s atmosphere. This is comparable to 13-40 percent of the fossil fuels emitted globally that same year, catapulting Indonesia to be ranked the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the US) according to some indices.
Over US$1.4 billion has been invested to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Indonesia. Investors include Norway, Australia, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, South Korea and Japan — as well as private companies such as Merrill Lynch, the Marubeni Corporation and Gazprom. Why are these investments not working in Riau Province, where most of the fires causing the Singapore Haze have occurred?
One strategy being pursued to combat Indonesia’s forest fires and high deforestation rates is a mechanism known as REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
Envisioned as a form of “payments for environmental services”, high-emission countries and companies pay rainforest-rich nations and communities to conserve forests, thus “offsetting” carbon emissions in one location through the sequestration of carbon in another.
This strategy is based on the premise that market logic is more effective than government regulations in curbing carbon emissions.
Indonesia now hosts more than 50 international REDD+ carbon-offsetting initiatives that promise potentially billions of dollars worth of investments. But the haze looming over Sumatra confronts REDD+ investors and Indonesia with the contradictions of market-based solutions.
Using NASA’s Active Fire Data and Indonesian Forestry Ministry concession maps of Riau, the World Resources Institute has shown that more than half of last week’s fires were on timber and oil palm concessions.
Ironically, the two corporations holding over half of these concessions are Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas International (which includes Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, Ltd.).
According to a UN-REDD inventory, these two Indonesian conglomerates fund REDD+ initiatives in Riau Province as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. Unfortunately, the emissions associated with this week’s blazes are sure to outweigh the potential offsets of REDD+ activities in Riau Province.
In the coming weeks there will be attempts to pinpoint the source of Sumatra’s peatland fires. Tracking the culprits has proven difficult in years past, as these fires are not isolated events and peat can actually smolder below ground for months or even years before resurfacing into flames.
Accusations already abound against Indonesia’s conglomerates, palm oil companies, smallholder farmers, and migrants squatting on concessions. Some of the accused are trying to increase profit margins, while others are struggling to make a daily living. But they all share the same market logic that underlies the REDD+ initiatives.
Some people will interpret these fires as an example of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The rational individual (e.g. the Sumatran farmer or Indonesian corporation) will make ever-increasing demands on natural resources until the expected costs of his or her actions equal the anticipated benefits.
Prioritizing personal interests, individuals sharing the commons (e.g. Indonesia) ignore the impacts of their actions on others (e.g. Singapore). In the end, everyone suffers.
But Hardin’s thesis is an over-simplification of reality. Decades of research have shown that societies repeatedly overcome the risk of such tragedies — finding ways to communicate, collaborate and sustainably manage their natural resources.
The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom recognized that the “Global Commons” presents humanity with a new challenge. Earth’s atmosphere is a case in point.
Can we come together as nations, corporations, organizations, and individuals to build an atmospheric ethic?
Wendy Miles researches the political ecology of REDD+ in Indonesia’s peatlands. Micah Fisher has long worked and lived in Indonesia. Both Miles and Fisher are PhD students at the University of Hawaii’s geography department.
Residents and plantation companies continue to open plantation areas by burning forests because it is the easiest and cheapest method, the nation’s disaster-prevention agency says.
“The people and businesses burn [forests] because it is much cheaper,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), told BeritaSatu on Saturday.
“Besides, they normally burn peatland where the acid level of the land is unsuitable for plantation. [The area] will become fertile if it’s burned and the ashes can be used as fertilizer.”
Sutopo said that explained why people were still burning forests to open land despite many regulations to ban the practice.
The Environment Ministry is investigating eight companies in Sumatra — two in Riau, four in South Sumatra and two in Aceh — that allegedly burned a total of 3,814 hectares of forest land to open new plantation areas.
The government has also put eight provinces on its forest fire control priority list: North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, East Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan.
Environmental law analyst Mas Achmad Santosa said that the lack of investigators to handle environmental cases slowed the Environment Ministry from enforcing the law. “The law offers a wide scope for law enforcement on environmental crimes,” Santosa said on Sunday.
The Law on Environmental Protection and Management enables civil servants tasked with investigating environmental cases to immediately start or halt an investigation without reporting it to the police. They are also authorized to arrest suspects through coordination with the police.
But many environmental crimes investigators no longer work in law enforcement. The ministry “just needs to call the civil servants who have shifted to other fields but still working in the ministry,” he said.
Previously, Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said the ministry had 1600 environmental crimes investigations to be distributed. Ministry data showed that 554 cases as of November 2010 but only 398 were active.
On Saturday morning, BNPB put out fires in an oil palm plantation area in Muarojambi district, Jambi.
“The fire on a 700-hectare plot of land in Muarojambi was contained this morning. It was an oil palm plantation area,” Sutopo said, adding that the fire-fighting effort involved artificial rain, water bombs and land-based attacks.
The agency is creating artificial rains in Riau and Central Kalimantan for 40 days because the dry season has just started.
“In Riau, the artificial rain will be created using two Cassa 212 aircraft and two helicopters for water bombs,” Sutopo said, adding that artificial rains would also be generated over Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.
“Artificial rains were created on Aug. 12, and we will do it again on Aug. 28 in both provinces. The process will be carried out for 40 consecutive days,” he said.
Water bombing is one method of containing forest fires, however, it has limited coverage and cannot be done over wide areas. “With artificial rains, it depends on the clouds. There are not enough clouds in mountainous areas during the dry season. … It’s possible to be carried out on peatlands by soaking them with water so that it doesn’t burn easily, but given the condition of rivers in Indonesia, this also poses a problem,” Sutopo said.
BNPB has allocated Rp 12 billion ($1.26 million) to contain forest fires but will increase it to Rp 30 billion if conditions worsen. BNPB has also prepared three additional helicopters and two aircraft to create artificial rains.
The Jakarta Globe | Fidelis E. Satriastanti | July 23, 2012
The Environment Ministry is investigating eight plantation companies in Sumatra for allegedly clearing nearly 4,000 hectares of forest using slash-and-burn methods.
Arief Yuwono, the minister’s deputy for environmental damage control and climate change, said on Sunday that the companies were believed to have burned down more than 3,800 hectares of forest.
“Two of the companies are in Riau, four are in South Sumatra and two are in Aceh,” he said.
He added that the ministry was also investigating some local officials involved in issuing permits to the companies.
The investigation comes as the Environment Ministry prioritizes measures to prevent haze as a result of forest fires on the island and particularly in Riau, which is set to host the 18th National Games in September.
Purwasto Saroprayogi, head of the ministry’s forest fire monitoring department, said the areas of top priority were Pelalawan and Rokan Hilir districts in Riau.
“We’re giving priority to these two regions because the number of forest fire hot spots detected there is quite high,” Purwasto said.
He added that there was a risk of more fires spreading in the province because of the hot spots.
He said that under the ministry’s Fire Danger Rating System, officials now had a better understanding of how the fires were spreading.
“Whereas before we could only monitor once every seven days, now we can do it once every three days,” Purwasto said.
As of July 15, there were 2,643 hot spots detected in Riau this year, or more than half of the 4,876 detected across Indonesia by a US satellite. South Sumatra accounted for 1,180 hot spots, while West Kalimantan had 1,053.
In Riau, most of the hot spots were concentrated in Pelalawan district, with 527, followed by Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir.
Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya warned that the number of fires would increase as the dry season continued, fanned in part by the “El Nino” phenomenon in October.
“Based on the information from the FDRS and predictions of decreased rainfall, there will be a high potential of forest fires in the eight most prone provinces of North and South Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, and [all of] Kalimantan,” he said as quoted by environmental website MongaBay.co.id.
Several protected areas across the archipelago remain under threat of deforestation apparently due to the ineffective moratorium program launched by the government last year, environmental groups say.
The environmental groups have witnessed continuing forest destruction by several companies despite the moratorium.
They estimate that 4.9 million hectares of primary forests and peatland, out of a total 71.01 million hectares covered by the moratorium, will be lost to palm-oil industries, coal mines and other forest conversions by the end of this month.
“The data shows that the forests and peatland are still at risk,” said Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Indonesia’s political campaigner.
The three largest protected areas are located in Kalimantan, with 1.9 million hectares; followed by Papua, with 1.7 million hectares; and Sumatra, with 775,371 hectares.
In Central Kalimantan, the regions worst affected by the industries are Pulang Pisau and South Lamandau. Meanwhile, the most endangered areas in Riau are Pulau Padang, Kerumutan, Kampar peninsula and Senepis forest. They are all known for their extensive peatland coverage.
In its efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), the Indonesian government issued a presidential decree in May 2011, ordering a two-year suspension on new concession permits on primary forests and peatland.
At the time, the government said it would review the moratorium every six months. In November 2011, it published a revision, in which some areas were removed from the moratorium map, including the Tripa peat swamp in Aceh. The total area covered in the revision was 65.37 million hectares.
Forestry Ministry spokesman Sumarto Suharno told The Jakarta Post last month that one of the reasons behind Tripa’s removal was data from the National Land Agency (BPN) that indicated that those areas were suitable for commercial development.
The environmental groups have accused the government of turning a blind eye to ongoing deforestation by companies that were granted concessions before the decree was issued.
The environmental activists stated that those companies were “the ones that are continuing to destroy the environment”.
“It seems like the government condones these practices,” Muslim Rasyid, from the Riau Forest Rescue Network (Jikalahari), said.
Muslim added that palm-oil industries had also encroached further into the biosphere reserve in Bukit Kecil, Riau, adding that the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4) knew exactly what was going on there, but had yet to offer any concrete solution.
Yuyun said that he and his fellow activists appreciated that several government agencies had sent investigative teams into the threatened areas.
However, he added that for the agencies, violations of environmental laws were unimportant.
“They issued recommendations, but what we really want them to do is to take stern measures to curb the ongoing deforestation. For the moment, they must stop the industries’ operations and review their permits,” he added.
The coalition concluded that by the end of this month, when the government is due to publish another moratorium revision, nothing much would have been achieved. (tas)
- Walhi, REDD task force fight forest clearing – The Jakarta Post (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Press release: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono being petitioned from around the world to uphold Indonesian Laws (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Faint ray of hope for Orangutans – Canberra Times (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Indonesia to investigate contested oil palm concession as governor loses election in Sumatra (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Researchers warn delays thwart efforts to save Indonesia’s environment (eco-business.com)
- SBY Aide Vows to Probe Aceh Forest Concession (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Oil palm surging source of greenhouse gas emissions (yubanet.com)
- SOCP Tripa Battle Call (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Governor of Aceh who signed palm oil permit: plantation in Tripa “morally wrong” (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Australian REDD Fail in Indonesia’s Kalimantan forests (radioaustralia.net.au)