Indonesia urged to declare national disaster as haze worsens

Forest fires are harming public health, diplomatic relations and could push CO2 emissions to an 18-year high, experts warn


Thick smoke blankets the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which has led to air quality and public health warnings in Indonesia and neighbours Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand (credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Adam Voiland)

By Thet Htoo Aung

Haze from fires ravaging Indonesia’s forests have ignited an environmental crisis and stoked diplomatic tensions as toxic smog cloaks much of Southeast Asia.

The Indonesian government must move to put out the blazes, many of which occur on carbon-rich peatland, and step up enforcement through international assistance, local experts said.

Fires rage annually in the country’s dry season, many started deliberately as vast tracts of land are cleared for palm oil plantations, sometimes illegally.

But this year tinder-dry conditions and the return of El Nino have fanned the smoke, shutting down schools, airports and blurring the skylines of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

“The government must stop pointing fingers at who started the fires and declare a national disaster,” said Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia forests campaign.

The country, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, chiefly through deforestation in its third-largest tropical forests, has now agreed to accept international help.

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President Joko Widodo has decided to accept assistance from wealthy Singapore, with Malaysia, Russia, Australia and China others that may help, though few specifics were given, AFP reported.

Capital Jakarta has reportedly deployed 25,000 personnel and aircraft to tackle fires on Sumatra island and the Indonesian part of Borneo, but fire-fighters were overwhelmed.

A total of 1,687 fires were burning in Sumatra, according to the Indonesian National Institute of Aeronautics and Space, AP reported on Tuesday.

Red outlines indicate hot spots where NASA’s MODIS sensor detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fires.

Detail from main picture. Red circles show hot spots where NASA’s MODIS sensor detected unusually warm surface temperatures linked with fires.

“Thousands of people in Sumatra and Kalimantan are sick. Little babies are dying because of the haze,” Greenpeace’s Maitar told Climate Home.

With smoke stretching across Southeast Asia, the seasonal fires are causing friction with neighbouring countries. Singapore last year passed a law allowing it to prosecute fire-starters across the Java sea.

This year’s blazes could emit more CO2 than the UK, according to the campaign group’s Energydesk news outlet, exceeding 1997’s record of between 0.81-2.57 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Nirarta Samadhi, country director for the World Resources Institute think tank, urged the government to concentrate its fire-fighting resources on the three or four worst hit municipalities, rather than spread forces too thinly.

When the blazes die down, it should set to work on mapping the country’s landed territory. An “integrated and comprehensive” database on concession and land use permits would determine who owns scorched territory and highlight occupied lands that don’t have legal status, he said by email.

Indonesia and more than 50 multinationals signed a joint declaration last September seeking to end deforestation by 2030.

Yet a ban on permits for primary forest and peatland launched in 2011 hasn’t been effectively enforced, satellite images show, with many fires coming from areas supposed to be protected.

Activists and some companies have set up platforms to monitor compliance of sustainable supply chain pledges.

But smallholders engaging in “slash and burn agriculture” in remote parts of forest have proved harder to deal with. In this developing country, “you need to understand that the root cause of the fire is attributed largely on the social-economic issues,” WRI’s Samadhi said.

Local government bodies have warned major companies that keeping to the stringent pledges, will see concessions awarded to other less scrupulous producers, according to Reuters.

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“There needs to be a regional conversation around intervention going forward,” said Jane Wilkinson, director of the Climate Policy Initiative’s Indonesia programme.

“Clearly Indonesia needs some assistance from countries in region to improve enforcement. I’m not sure if that’s satellite monitoring or better on-the-ground mobilisation of police… but as long people can get away with it, they’ll do it,” added Wilkinson, who summoned her team to Jakarta from affected areas this week to avoid the unhealthy smoke.

President Widodo reasserted Indonesia’s right to development in its recent pledge to the UN ahead of a climate summit in December.

The palm oil industry is a motor for the economy, employing nearly 5 million workers. Small-scale agricultural workers number more.

But the idea of pollution as a constraint on economic activity is slow to percolate through to the wider population, Wilkinson added.

“Sustainable development has some traction in Indonesia, but clearly if the people can’t breathe the air they’re living in it’s not sustainable.”

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