Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, on a particularly hazy day in October 2015. (Photo courtesy of Bjorn Vaughn)

Haze Is Gone but Answers Remain Thin


DECEMBER 14, 2015

This year’s wildfire and haze crisis saw nearly 2 million hectares of forested land across the Indonesian archipelago go up in flames and the lives of millions around the Southeast Asia region affected by the thick smoke, seeing scores of respiratory illness and the forced closure of schools and businesses.

The country’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) labeled the catastrophe as a “crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions” after 19 people died from breathing toxic fumes and an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections were reported since July.

The damage also extended to the nation’s finances as the government estimated the haze crisis costs set Indonesia back up to $47 billion, a huge blow to the country’s already sluggish economy.

This year’s devastating disaster prompted conservation scientist from Borneo Futures Erik Meijaard to claim it was “the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century” after the Indonesian government failed to protect the lives of millions of people, the nation’s protected forests and wildlife and the global environment from the fires and haze engulfing the region.

Blame game

The fires and haze happen every year in the country, and tackling them has been a seasonal challenge for almost every Indonesian government for the past 17 years.

For this year’s fires, the Indonesian government — under the leadership of President Joko Widodo who has faced the disaster twice since taking office in October last year — and regional authorities conveniently put the blame on a weather anomaly known as El Nino, in which dry seasons are prolonged as an outcome from high sea water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific ocean.

They also pointed the finger at the wind direction for the haze blanketing neighboring countries Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, which was also visible from a photograph taken from a million miles away by NASA’s Earth-observing DSCOVR satellite in late October.

Meanwhile, environmentalists say that at the root of the problem is the decades-long unsustainable practice of land clearing known as slash and burn where soil — particularly peat which is a dense organic matter in the process of becoming coal, and rich in carbon — is set on fire as a cheaper way to clear it for monocultural plantations, commonly oil palms or acacia.

Data from World Resources Institute (WRI) in September showed that more than 37 percent of the fires in Sumatra occurred on pulpwood concessions, while a good proportion of the rest are on or near land used by palm oil producers.

Based on the type of soil, the same report showed that 52 percent of the fires occur on peatland which is highly flammable.

Mansuetus Darto, chairman of the Bogor-based Oil Palm Smallholders Union (SPKS), also pointed out that a “rotten bureaucracy” on the regional government level played a role as to why the fires continued to reappear despite the change of state administrations.

“During election periods, running officials promise under the table methods to securing permits and concession areas in exchange for huge financial support from companies who wish to operate in the electoral districts,” Mansuetus told the Jakarta Globe recently.

Such political practices, he suggested, would also hinder the process of law enforcement against the firm’s executives when fires go out of control on the company’s concession areas.

In the spotlight 

While the perennial problem of forest fires continued to spiral — particularly in Jambi, Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra, Riau, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan which all declared a state of emergency in September after air pollution indices went off the charts — awareness built up exponentially over the hazy situation.

An analysis from Twitter Indonesia revealed that Indonesians posted nearly 2 million tweets in which they used the hashtag #MelawanAsap (#BattlingHaze) to garner support and attention domestically and abroad during the worst period of the disaster.

According to the report, it was the second-most tweeted subject in the country this year.

In the global arena, the fires and haze disaster also further marred Indonesia’s foreign relations especially after recently exercising its policy to execute foreign nationals earlier this year.

Neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, slammed the Indonesian government for its inability to immediately and effectively douse the fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra as they were also choking in the harmful smoke.

An unprecedented response to the criticisms, however, came from Vice President Jusuf Kalla who said that citizens from the neighboring countries shouldn’t have complained, but instead should thank Indonesia for the other months in which they could breathe clean air produced by the archipelago’s forests.

The Indonesian delegations attending the 21st conference of parties organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were also expected to face tough questions regarding this year’s over 15,000 scorching forest fires, which produced from nations who gathered up in Paris.

Based on its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for global carbon cuts effort to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, Indonesia has vowed to cut 29 percent of its carbon emission by 2030, a fairly ambitious target compared to its 26 percent pledge until 2020.

To tackle the fires on the ground, the Indonesian government deployed more than 26,000 troops and 30 aircraft to conduct water-bombing and cloud-seeding operations, as well as stationed several warships off Kalimantan, on standby to evacuate victims if required.

Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Japan sent assistance to help extinguish the fires which catapulted Indonesia as the world’s biggest carbon producer in the September to October period as it generated emissions each day exceeding the average daily emissions from all US economic activity.

While technical and financial aid continued to pour into the country, persistent rains in late October, which lasted through November, ultimately extinguished the fires and cleared the sky of the orange-yellow smoke which blanketed the region.

“It was the nature that finally played its role when all human efforts seemed ineffective in mitigating this disaster,” Aditya Bayunanda, forest commodity leader with WWF Indonesia, told the Globe.

Still, environmentalists praised all mitigation measures done by the administration of Joko, who cut short his first state visit to the US to handle the haze, noting the policies the president made, such as putting a moratorium — although only in the form of a presidential order which has the weakest legal power compared to a government regulation (PP) or a presidential decree (perpres) — on issuing permit for concession areas on peat and drawing up a blueprint to restore 2 millions of peat over the next five years.

“The incumbent government is definitely doing a better job compared to the previous administrations in handling the fires and haze … issuing those policies is a good start,” Aditya says.

Mansuetus from SPKS said that the government also received brownie points when they imposed a strict law enforcement againt the people who have been suspected for causing the fires, slapping them with legal charges and placing them on the government’s blacklist.

As of October, the Environment and Forestry Ministry has charged some 413 plantation companies with allegations of burning their concession areas causing the wildfires and haze, and 14 of them received sanctions, including operating permit termination.

Gone, for now

The whole nation may still be recuperating from the haze trauma that scarred half a million people in Indonesia, but experts have warned the government that another tsunami of fires is likely to engulf the country’s forested areas and peatlands sooner rather than later.

WWF Indonesia’s Aditya pointed out that many have predicted that Indonesia’s ongoing rainy season would be ephemeral with estimations of another long dry season to begin as early as March next year.

“I would really like to see the every government’s preventive measurement towards the forest fires from now until next year’s dry season,” Aditya says.