Fighting of fires must continue under blue skies

SIMON TAY Today Online 10 Mar 16;

Blue skies breed amnesia. With the clear skies, many may now struggle to recall the urgency and anger over the smoke haze pollution in the region. Last year was one of the worst on historical record for fires and it was barely six months ago that the haze reached its peak, hitting a Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) of 2,300 in Central Kalimantan.

It is critical that governments, corporations in the relevant industries and concerned citizens continue to work on the issue. Predictions are that 2016 may not be as dry as last year. Smaller fires began breaking out in East Kalimantan in December, and the situation has worsened recently, with Riau declaring a state of emergency over forest and land fires in Sumatra on Tuesday, indicating that there is no place for complacency.

There are fears that fires will flare up again in earnest once the rainy season ends in March.

The coming weeks will see a number of notable gatherings that can gauge commitment and progress. This week, the General Assembly of the Tropical Forest Alliance will be held in Jakarta — a meeting to promote deforestation-free supply chains. In April, the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources will review commitments among key plantation sectors such as palm oil and pulp and paper, as well as discuss the responsibilities of consumers, governments, and financial institutions.

While companies and civil society must do their part, the government of Indonesia must lead, as most of the fires stem from their provinces and affect their own people first and foremost. There are positive signs that the administration of President Joko Widodo is stepping up efforts.

Mr Widodo personally attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at end-2015 and reiterated Indonesia’s pledge to reduce emissions by 29 per cent by 2030. A large part of this reduction must come from stopping the fires and haze, as this was the major source of Indonesian emissions in 2015.

The President also emphasised the problem of peatlands, which, once dried, have been the major source of fires. A nationwide moratorium on draining and developing peatland has been announced, and a Peatland Restoration Agency established. Its chief, Nazir Foead, has been appointed with a ministerial rank and will report directly to the President’s office.

In mid-January, at a closed door meeting, the President told officials in the provinces that they must prevent fires or face consequences. Sources say the President was focused and forthright at the meeting and will apply a reward-or-punish approach even to local police and army chiefs. The Jokowi administration has also revoked the licences of almost 20 companies with concessions where fires were started. These measures are steps in the right direction to minimise the costs of fires and haze in future. A recent estimate by the World Bank values the economic losses in Indonesia at US$16 billion (S$22 billion) — equivalent to 1.9 per cent of Indonesia’s gross domestic product and more than twice the reconstruction cost after the 2004 tsunami.

Having toured the worst-affected provinces during the fire spell, Mr Widodo knows full well the human misery suffered by Indonesian communities nearest to the fires. More than half a million people were treated for acute lung infections, with children living in affected provinces being the main casualties.

At the regional level, the Indonesian Minister for Environment and Forestry, Dr Siti Nurbaya, is reported to have given assurances to her regional counterparts that every effort will be made to prevent a repeat of last year’s problems.

Even as the Jokowi administration and other governments push ahead, corporations in the supply chain of the palm oil, and pulp and paper industries can and should respond to make their operations sustainable and fire-free.

A shift from fire suppression to fire prevention is seen in the efforts of some corporations, with the creation of fire-free villages involving collaboration between communities, enforcement agencies and local NGOs. Regulatory bodies and financial institutions, likewise, must tighten their environmental, social and governance guidelines to avoid financing actions that cause or contribute to the fires.

When the Singapore Institute of International Affairs met the Peatlands Restoration Agency recently, there was a frank recognition of the challenges ahead.

The problem cuts across physical and jurisdictional lines, requiring coordination between environment and agriculture, and also with economic agencies and provincial authorities.

The challenge to control major companies is compounded by the need to assist many more small plantations to avoid the use of fire for land clearance.

It remains to be seen whether what is promised can be delivered and will be enough. But it is clear that to avoid another ill season of fire and haze, the work must continue to push ahead even under the blue skies.


Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The SIIA will host the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on April 15 to strengthen commitments to sustainable resource development in the region.