Indonesia: Better Policies Equal Fewer Forest Fires: World Resources Institute

Ratri M. Siniwi Jakarta Globe 20 Sep 16;

Jakarta. While last year's haze crisis has been described as the worst on record, having reportedly resulted in the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people in the region, the World Resources Institute notes that the fire alerts for 2016 have been the lowest in a decade.

According to the non-governmental global research organization, this year's fires have only raised 16,128 alerts by Sunday (18/09), or 73 percent less compared to the same period last year.

The institute attributed the decrease to weather conditions and policy changes implemented after the 2015 emergency.

"This year, Indonesia is seeing wetter-than-usual conditions caused by La NiƱa, which shortens the dry season and helps firefighting efforts. Heavy rains have extinguished a recent fire in Riau and provided a relatively swift relief from toxic haze," the WRI research team, consisting of Arief Wijaya, Susan Minnemeyer, Reidinar Juliane, Octavia Aris Payne and Andres Chamorro, said in a statement on Monday.

The WRI claims that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's regulatory measures, such as extending the moratorium on new licenses for the development of plantations, establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency and the "One Map" initiative — a map of land ownership to provide clarity on the boundaries of land belonging to companies, communities and the government — have positively contributed to the handling of this year's fires.

The success of a Rp 1.07 trillion ($76 million) civil lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry against Sampoerna Strategic Group's agribusiness venture National Sago Prima, makes the institute confident that companies will become more accountable.

"The ministry has also sanctioned 30 companies, temporarily revoked licenses from those found guilty, and is currently suing 10 more. This sends a signal that companies should better clean up their acts," the WRI said.

With the recent fatwa issued by the Indonesian Islamic Council on burning land and forests, the ministry hopes to deter Muslims, who are the biggest population group in Indonesia, from clearing land by slash-and-burn methods.

Some private companies undertake their own public awareness programs to reduce fires. Through the Fire-Free Alliance, a multi-stakeholder project to combat wildfires in Indonesia, they establish firefighting units and provide incentives to the local communities for keeping their land fire-free.

The research organization observed, however, that Indonesia needs to invest in long-term solutions to end slash-and-burn practices.

"Last year's fire season catalyzed the strongest response to fires ever, but the current strategies remain short-term and costly. Global Forest Watch Fires data show that while the total number of fires this year is lower, fire risk continues to rise," the WRI said.

The institute suggests that more stakeholders should be encouraged to collaborate in the Fire-Free Alliance; better access to mechanical land clearing equipment be provided to farmers, and that law enforcement should be stepped up with the use of technology and persistent monitoring of fire risks through the Global Forest Watch Fires interactive map.

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