Fighting fires and haze in Indonesia

Chen Chen Lee and Pek Shibao
Jakarta Globe 5 Sep 16;

The recent return of the haze to the region underlines the fact that agribusinesses should take more responsibility in fighting peatland and forest fires in Indonesia. While some industry leaders have stepped up to implement promising methods to tackle fires, many other agribusinesses are not doing enough to address the root causes of the problem.

Following the 2015 haze crisis — the worst in the region’s history — the Indonesian government has significantly ramped up its efforts against fire. It has suspended the further issuing of oil palm plantation licenses and pursued legal cases against companies linked to forest fires, handing down a record S$110 million (US$80.86 million) fine to one such company in August. It has also established a Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to restore the country’s vast areas of degraded peatlands, which are much more flammable than mineral soil, although how effective the agency’s efforts will be remains to be seen.

Partly as a result of these efforts, the number of hotspots has decreased this year, as compared to the same period last year. But it is also essential for agribusinesses to take serious measures to stamp out fires at their source.

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) was in Indonesia’s Riau province last week, near where the fires occurred, to study how agribusinesses tackle fires on the ground. Riau is especially prone to fire as it contains many plantations on drained peatland. We visited the plantations of major agribusinesses and spoke to villagers, farmers and conservationists. The trip highlighted to us some promising approaches against fire that more companies would do well to implement.

First, evidence shows that fires are set not just by companies, but also by small-scale farmers. Many of these small-scale farmers have migrated from overpopulated provinces to hinterland areas such as Sumatra and Kalimantan in search of land and income opportunities. These migrants often illegally encroach upon unmanaged lands, burning existing vegetation to plant crops such as oil palm. Many such cases of encroachment occur near access points, such as roads and rivers.

The distribution of hotspots supports this theory. According to the public forest monitoring platform, Global Forest Watch, the vast majority of hotspots this year has occurred outside plantation boundaries. This implies that these fires were likely started by small-scale farmers, rather than by companies.

To combat encroachment, some agribusinesses employ a “ring approach”, encircling designated conservation forests with plantations. This makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to access the conservation areas and set fires there. Notably, this “ring approach” is being used to protect the Riau Ecosystem Restoration project, a 150,000-hectare conservation forest on Riau’s Kampar peninsula.

Second, rather than putting out fires, it is much more effective to prevent fires from occurring in the first place. This is because once fires start, they can intensify and spread rapidly, to the point where they can only be extinguished by rainfall. This was exactly what occurred during last year’s haze episode, when an inadequate early fire response combined with a lack of rain to allow fires to rage on for months.

Now, leading agribusinesses are increasingly realizing the need to invest more heavily in fire prevention. This includes identifying areas with high fire risk, educating local communities about the negative effects of starting fires, and employing ground patrols to locate and quickly put out fires while they are still small.

A promising approach is the introduction of “fire-free village” programs, which offer villagers monetary rewards for keeping their areas fire-free. The aim is to create a mindset change over time away from traditional slash-and-burn agricultural methods. Critically, these programs appear to have obtained buy-in from villagers: We observed that one of the villages chose to re-invest its reward into buying additional fire-fighting equipment. There is potential for companies and NGOs to scale up these programs and customize them so that they can be implemented in other provinces with high fire risk.

Lastly, plantations on drained peatland will always be more prone to fire than plantations on mineral soil. The Indonesian government is taking steps to enforce a ban on further peatland plantation development, a move that we applaud. As for existing plantations on peatland, it is critical that agribusinesses tightly manage water levels in the peat soil to keep it moist. Though water management is expensive, it is the only reliable method to reduce fire outbreaks until such time when the peatland plantations can be repurposed or restored to their natural state.

The stakes have gone up for agribusinesses that fail to adequately address the problem of fire. Increased pressure from governments, ASEAN, NGOs, and regulatory bodies will result in greater legal, reputational, and credit risks for those who continue to engage in unsustainable practices. With their large plantation areas and high exposure to fire risk, larger agribusinesses are likely to feel the heat the most.

At the same time, we see limits in what companies can do on their own. Companies lack the resources to prevent fires from occurring on unmanaged lands, yet these fires may also grow and spread into companies’ plantations. Some local villagers resist fire-fighting efforts, as fires clear land that they can then use for cultivation. At the minimum, companies and local governments will need to work together to solve these problems.

At the crux of the problem lie consumer purchasing patterns. Ultimately, demanding only sustainably produced palm oil and paper products is the only long-term method to convince farmers not to burn. If consumers shift their purchasing patterns, we can reinforce efforts from agribusinesses and the Indonesian government to eradicate transboundary haze pollution for good.
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Chen Chen Lee and Pek Shibao are, respectively, director (policy programs) and policy research analyst (sustainability) at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).

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