Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Haze -- smoking people

[A range of articles on Indonesia's haze problem.

First, a plea for prevention instead of ineffective cure.
Second, it's going to take time and money. Maybe 10 years for the Haze to be completely stopped.
Third, the extent and extension of the fires and the haze.
And finally two articles on the global and local impact of the haze and why it is in the interests of Indonesia to stop the forest fires. ]

How to stop Indonesia’s devastating forest fires from happening again


Indonesia’s forest and land fires have reached a new level of global severity.

New analysis published over the weekend by Dr Guido van der Werf, lead scientist with the Global Fire Emissions Database, indicates that since last month, greenhouse gas emissions from the fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all United States economic activity. Extrapolating from Dr Van der Werf’s estimates, these emissions are likely to add about 3 per cent to total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities for the year. The emissions from fires so far this year are more than three times higher than expected by Indonesia’s national planning agency.

The fires in Indonesia are set to clear land for agriculture or as a weapon in conflict over land.

Many of the fires are burning on carbon-rich peatlands and as a result, spew extremely large amounts of toxic smog into the air and climate-altering gas into the atmosphere.

The economic cost is huge, likely to exceed US$14 billion (S$19.6 billion). Firefighting costs are currently heading towards US$50 million (S$69.8 million) per week, paid for by Indonesian taxpayers at a time of slowing growth and severe stress on the national economy. The health impact of the smog has reached epidemic proportions both in Indonesia and neighbouring countries, with more than 300,000 people seeking medical help for respiratory complaints. Tragically, a number of children have died as a result of acute breathing difficulties.

Indonesia’s neighbours are upset. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are calling for more action. Now, Indonesia’s fire emissions are drawing the attention of United Nations negotiators as they focus on completing the critically important global climate agreement in just a few weeks in Paris.

To its credit, the Joko Widodo administration has accepted responsibility and apologised to the country’s neighbours while also mounting a massive effort, with over 20,000 responders, to fight the fires. But a crucial lesson from the crisis must be heeded: An ounce of prevention is better than almost any amount of cure.

In other words, the costs of reducing the risk of future fire crises by taking preventative measures are far less than the costs of firefighting along with the damage to land, people and the climate.

We recommend significant financial investment and active leadership from President Jokowi to address the underlying causes of the fires in the most fire-prone provinces. What is certain is that the investment needed over several years is less than is being spent fighting fires just in the past month. To succeed, this must be accompanied with leadership from the President himself to ensure ministries follow through. Three priority actions should be fully funded and implemented by the Jokowi administration working in close partnership with Indonesian researchers, civil society and government agencies at the national and local levels. The provinces of Riau, South Sumatra, Central and West Kalimantan should be the initial focus of these efforts, as these areas account for the vast majority of the fires.

The first priority is to get serious about an existing, but stalled effort, known as One Map. This initiative, about which Mr Widodo has spoken positively, would reduce the current confusion over land and resource ownership and rights, where many conflicting maps are managed by different agencies. One Map aims to create one accurate, up-to-date, publicly accessible, online map overseen by the Office of the President. One Map has wide support from business and civil society, but is limping along as the President and his ministers have prioritised other development objectives.

Second, the boundaries determined through One Map should be consistently enforced, along with other key laws and regulations. Land-use sectors in Indonesia are notoriously poorly governed, as evidenced by several former governors and district heads now serving jail time, or likely to be doing so, following illegal land deals.

Illegal burning has been a central part of the picture, and we applaud the current efforts of Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies to investigate fire crimes for the first time on a scale commensurate with the problem.


The strengthening and enforcement of regulations that protect peatlands, which generate the most potent emissions when burned, are desperately needed.

Special funds could be allocated to train and support elite national, mobile enforcement units, which would be kept clean of corruption and run by commanders scrutinised by a panel of independent observers, with additional oversight from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Executive Office of the President. Small, medium and large companies should all be held accountable before the law if they are found to be clearing land illegally using fire.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the needs of poor farmers in the priority provinces, and more widely across Indonesia, require urgent attention. A significant portion of the fires started as legal small fires set by these farmers to clear their land. These thousands of legal fires across landscapes should be prevented through provision of access to alternative land clearing techniques and equipment, with low-cost financing through local microfinance schemes.

Poor farmers also need urgent help to clarify their land and resource rights, shift to higher quality crop breeds, and improve their use of fertilisers and other inputs. Training and outreach efforts are also needed for smaller companies that do not have the capacity of larger firms to quickly adapt their practices. Tax and other incentives could also be explored to encourage more sustainable land management.

The World Resources Institute, with staff in Jakarta and Washington DC, along with many of our partners, are prepared to help with the implementation of these steps. The current crisis should focus the country’s leadership on priority actions that would greatly reduce the risk of future fires, while also helping raise incomes of poor farmers and reduce land conflict.

With improved land management, Indonesia can take advantage of the growing demand for sustainable agricultural commodities such as palm oil, cacao and coffee. In addition, it can reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and help the country achieve its national development and climate goals.



Dr Nirarta Samadhi is director of World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, based in Jakarta, and Dr Nigel Sizer is global director of the forests programme at WRI, based in Washington D.C.

Indonesia may take up to a decade to curb annual land fires

27 Oct 2015

SINGAPORE — Indonesia may take as long as a decade to permanently curb the plantation land-burning that sends choking smog across swathes of Southeast Asia each year, according to a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University.

Although Indonesia has ratified a regional agreement committing it to act to reduce the smoke “haze” caused by the land fires, the law has yet to enacted locally in its districts, said Mr Jonatan Anderias Lassa, a research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the Singapore university.

“They need to bring down that law into local legislative processes,” Mr Lassa told reporters in Singapore on Monday, adding that a division of resources between central and local governments was also required. “It hasn’t been done, and it takes five to 10 years to do that.”

Exacerbated by dry conditions from the El Nino weather phenomenon, this year’shaze is among the worst on record. Stinging smoke from the illegal burning to clear land for palm oil and paper plantations have blanketed Singapore, parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for over a month. Besides prompting school closures and disrupting sea and air travel in the region, the smog has also forced some in Indonesia to flee their homes.

Mr Lassa estimates that an initial investment of US$10 million (S$13.9 million) to US$20 million could help the Indonesian government kick start the enactment of locally relevant legislation in the 211 affected districts on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The three-hourly air pollution index in Singapore was 136 at 6am local time. Readings exceeding 100 are classified as “unhealthy,” as the government advises people to reduce prolonged outdoor activities.

Singapore’sthe National Environment Agency said it detected at least 11 so-called hotspots in Sumatra and 84 in Kalimantan on Monday. “Moderate to dense haze is still persisting in parts of central and southern Sumatra and Kalimantan,” it said.


U.S. to give Indonesia S$3.83m aid for haze

OCTOBER 27, 2015

The United States will contribute an initial US$2.75 million (S$3.83 million) to help Indonesia cope with the country’s worst haze crisis in years, said its ambassador to Indonesia yesterday.

“This assistance is part of the United States’ wider effort to support Indonesian activities to suppress forest fires and to mitigate their effects on human health, as well as to support Indonesian government efforts to prevent future forest fires,” said ambassador Robert O Blake, Jr.

The package will provide immediate assistance to populations affected by haze and smoke, improve the effectiveness of current fire suppression efforts and address the impact of the fires on vulnerable populations, said the embassy in the statement.

The assistance package includes funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help Indonesia expand the ability of healthcare centres to respond to haze-related respiratory illnesses and support efforts to raise awareness of the hazards associated with haze in the region.

The funds will also provide equipment and protective gear to ground-based firefighters and will support a team of US Forest Service technical advisers arriving in Indonesia to provide wildfire support.

Fires in previously unspoilt Indonesian forests spread haze to new areas


JAKARTA — The worst forest fires in living memory continue to generate huge amounts of health-threatening smoke throughout Indonesia, with winds spreading the blaze and haze to areas previously untouched by the problem.

Indonesia’s national weather agency, BMKG, said that three-quarters of the country’s territory have been affected to varying degrees by the haze, with fires burning out of control across hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests in Sumatra island and Kalimantan — the heartlands of Indonesia’s palm oil industry — as well as in the relatively untouched forests of Sulawesi and Papua islands, where the government has massive ambitions of clearing more space for farmland.

Some 43 million people have been affected by haze in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone, said the BMKG. Yesterday, Indonesia deployed three warships to Kalimantan, with more on standby to deliver face masks and other supplies to those affected by the haze, an official told AFP news agency.

“Our warships are ready to evacuate residents, whether to temporary shelters or even on board. We are prepared for that,” military spokesman Tatang Sulaiman told the AFP.

Even though Sumatra and Kalimantan continue to be the hardest hit by the fires, Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is also cloaked by a thin coat of haze. But National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroh said the haze in Jakarta would soon dissipate with the wind.

He added the particles in the haze posed much less of a health risk than the daily dose of exhaust fumes from the vehicles clogging the city’s streets.

The haze from Sumatra has also spread as far north as Aceh province, where flights to and from Sultan Iskandar Muda airport have been cancelled, with visibility no further than 800m. Airport authorities say they require visibility of at least 2,000m to ensure flight safety.

Flights have also been cancelled at Kualanamu airport outside Medan, North Sumatra, while schools have been ordered closed until Thursday.

In Sulawesi, until recently relatively untouched by industrial-scale plantations, fires set to clear forests for farmland have destroyed more than 18,000ha of forest and counting, officials say. Makassar in South Sulawesi accounted for 151 of the 800 fire hot spots detected by satellite across the province over the weekend.

In North Maluku, part of the famed “Spice Islands” archipelago, officials said they had managed to put out two major blazes over the weekend, but continue to battle an undisclosed number of other fires spread across the region. There were more than 40 hot spots detected across the region.

Papua is home to the largest unspoilt tract of forest in the country, but fires there are threatening to turn it into another victim of the oil palm monoculture curse.

Residents and soldiers worked throughout the weekend to put out a blaze burning since last week in the heavily forested foothills just outside Jayapura, Papua’s provincial capital.

The only areas not affected by the haze, according to the BMKG, were Yogyakarta, Central Java, parts of East Java, East Nusa Tenggara and the northern part of Papua.

Erik Meijaard: Get Your Facts Right on Indonesia's Haze Problem

Sept 7 2015

I find it remarkable that after several decades of forest and peatland fires and associated haze problems, governmental and non-governmental organizations are still barking up the wrong tree in the fire and haze blaming game.

In a recent Jakarta Globe article, President Joko Widodo talks tough on fires and haze, blaming "disobedient plantation companies for setting the fires to clear land for planting." Similarly, the article quotes environmental activists who point to plantation companies for being the biggest cause of fires and haze.

Dear oh dear, does anyone ever read the studies about causes of forest fire and haze in Indonesia? Apparently not. Or maybe people do, but they prefer to ignore the facts and reiterate the more convenient fictions.

Small-scale farmers

So I say it again, just in case there is someone out there willing to listen. Studies of fire and haze in Kalimantan and Sumatra firmly point towards small-scale farmers and other under-the-radar, mid-scale land-owners, rather than large companies as the main cause of fires and haze.

A study published in August 2015 in the journal Environmental Research Letters clearly shows that on Sumatra 59 percent of fire emissions originate from outside timber and oil-palm concession boundaries. These non-concession-related fires generated 62 percent of smoke exposure in equatorial Southeast Asia (primarily Singapore and Malaysia).

In Kalimantan, non-concession fires play an even bigger role. Fires outside concessions generated 73 percent of all emissions and 76 percent of smoke affecting equatorial Southeast Asia.

These findings are in line with similar results based on more detailed studies in Riau and published in Nature in 2014. In Riau, 52 percent of the total burned area in 2013 was within concessions. However, 60 percent of these burned areas were occupied and used by small-and medium-landholders.

And another scientific publication on the causes of Indonesian forest fires showed that, even 15 years ago, when oil-palm companies were involved a lot more frequently than now in land-clearing with fire, rural communities were a dominant cause of fires in both Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The key point is that the fire and haze problem in Indonesia is complex, with multiple actors playing a role. Focusing on large concessions alone, which the Indonesian government and also non-government organizations seem to do, is not going to do much to reduce the problem.

If the president wants “no more forest fires next year,” his government needs to get realistic about real causes and think about how to address these effectively.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Kalimantan or Sumatra during the dry season knows that burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or just for fun is a favorite pastime of many. Most districts have laws in place that prohibit this kind of burning, but the big issue is that no one pays any heed to these laws and consequently they are largely ignored.

A new approach

If the Indonesian government really wants to reduce the fire and haze problem it needs to get far more specific in its management. Setting up task forces that look out for fires so that they can direct fire-fighting helicopters and cloud-seeding activities in the right direction are mostly window-dressing and won’t do much to reduce the underlying problem of Indonesia’s many million arsonists. An expert meeting on the fire problem on Aug. 25 similarly recommended shifting the emphasis from fire-fighting to fire prevention.

First, and most immediately, you start with law enforcement. You get the army and police involved to track down anyone illegally setting fire to land, and take legal action. If the law says burning is illegal, prosecute the perpetrators -- how hard is that? You advertize burning prohibitions widely, through radio, television, newspapers, social media, billboards, and public speeches by governors, district heads and others. And you make sure that everyone understands that this time it is serious.

In the longer term, Sumatra and Kalimantan may need somewhat different approaches. On Sumatra, where most fire emissions are generated from peat lands, the government has to stop giving out concession licenses on coastal peats. As I argued before, plantation development in coastal peatlands is unsustainable and will cause major economic losses to Indonesia. These peat lands need to be reforested and their original hydrology restored. That is the only way to stop peat burning.

In Kalimantan, where burning by local communities plays an even bigger role than in Sumatra, the focus may need to be more on stopping unsustainable slash-and-burn cultivation activities, especially in peat lands. Develop solid agricultural support programs that provide subsidies for non-destructive land uses that use more advanced fertilization and irrigation techniques and higher-yield crops.

Ultimately, Indonesia urgently needs to start taking the costs of development into consideration and not just focus on the benefits.

Counting the cost

Fires and haze, just like flooding, water pollution, increased temperatures following deforestation, and other issues are costing society tens of billions of dollars in damage annually, but this is rarely noted by those in power. Fires and haze alone caused $3.5 billion of losses to Indonesia in the past few years, according to the Jakarta Globe.

Who is counting the costs of floods that increase with deforestation and displace up to half a million people annually in Kalimantan alone? And has anyone even tried to estimate the major economic impacts of the much higher temperatures that prevail after a forest has been turned into a grassland or plantation? Communities complain a lot about the heat, the associated reduced crop yields, and the disease outbreaks. They know the costs, but who else is listening?

The science is there to inform decisions on all levels of government and to find lasting solutions, for Indonesia's own sake.

Erik Meijaard: Indonesia's Fire Crisis — The Biggest Environmental Crime of the 21st Century

23 Oct 2015

While the haze problem from fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra is still worsening, the news seems to be slowly slipping from the headlines. Apart from the approximate 40 million people breathing in noxious smoke day in day out, not many media outlets here or overseas really seem to care about the issue. I find this astonishing. Not only is there appalling human suffering, with hundreds of thousands of people ill and many dead, the fires are a massive cost to the Indonesian economy.

Checking the list of the worst man-made environmental disasters ever, Indonesia’s fires are probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century.

Why has the Indonesian government not taken serious steps to stop and control the fire and haze problem? Are the few helicopters and water bombers, an insufficient supply of the right type of face masks, and some canals dug in the peat to guide water to fires really the best the government can do?

Large parts of Indonesia have now been in a state of emergency for over a month. Why has there not been a nationally declared total fire ban advertised 24/7 on all television channels? Why has there not been a clear message: you burn — you go to jail? Why has Indonesia not sent in a million soldiers to address the humanitarian and environmental crisis? Why is all government action so apparently lackluster and unfocused?

I think ultimately the answer is that the government still hasn’t recognized how serious the problem is.

$50 billion or more?

But serious it is, very serious! By its own estimate a few weeks ago, the fire and haze issue was going to cost Indonesia $35 billion. That would be about 4 percent of Indonesia’s gross national product, basically wiping out all economic growth for 2015.

I am not sure how the above estimate was made. Willem Rampangilei, the head the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), referred to World Bank data dating back to 2013 and concerning Riau province alone, which indicated economic losses related to fires of some Rp 20 trillion, or about $2 billion in 2013 rates. I guess multiplying that figure by the number of provinces with a fire problem, and again multiplying it because this is a far worse fire year than 2013, gets you to a $35 billion damage bill.

I also don’t know whether these figures take the many intangible impacts of fire into consideration, like haze-related traffic accidents, canceled flights, or businesses that cannot operate? What about the impacts of haze-related unemployment, such as the much-quoted story of Mr Slamet in Palangkaraya, who lost his construction job because of the haze. There must be thousands of people like him.

Slamet from Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, works in construction but because of the haze that is consuming his province there is no work for him. The water is full of garbage and toxic waste, yet he says 'better a dirty fish than no fish at all.'

But much more importantly, how does one account for the cost of health impacts and deaths? Just as an example, there is a lot of talk about pollution levels of particulate matter (PM10) in the haze. But things are actually much worse than that. Professor Susan Page of the University of Leicester, who has worked in Kalimantan peat swamps since the early 1990s, wrote to me that “the levels of carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone are presently off the scale.” Just to be clear, carbon monoxide is the stuff people use to commit suicide and ground-level ozone is similarly highly toxic — not just to people but also to plants, so this will also impact crop productivity.

Talking about crop productivity, how will agricultural yields be affected? The oil palm industry alone for example is expected to have 10–20 percent yield reductions because of the persistent haze. In an industry worth some $20 billion, this could shave a few billion dollars off national earnings. And this doesn’t yet address the threat of countries like Singapore to ban Indonesian products associated with oil-palm or pulp-and-paper production. Indonesia’s export revenues from these two industries together exceed $40 billion, earnings the country can hardly afford to lose.

And what about the small-holder agriculture? Haze in 1997 significantly reduced bee populations and these took about three years to recover. Bees are the most crucial species in pollination. No bees, no onions, no tomatoes, no potatoes, no eggplants, and no water melons, to name a few. As Albert Einstein said: “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” At least Albert got it.

There are so many direct and indirect socio-economic impacts, and the total costs of Indonesia’s poorly managed fire problem might well reach the $50 billion mark or go beyond. One would think that such a figure would shake the government into real concrete action regarding the fire and haze disaster.

International reputation

And if those economic figures don’t succeed in getting the government focused, then surely Indonesia’s rapidly declining international reputation should make it think. Obviously, Indonesia’s direct neighbours Singapore, Malaysia, but also Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines, are already annoyed with the Indonesian government for its inability to predict and prepare for the fire disaster and to do anything effective about it.

But also in the global arena, Indonesia is going to look very bad. In Paris, next month, Indonesia will have to present its carbon reduction plans. Whatever those plans are, it will be hard to convince other governments that Indonesia can be taken seriously, considering that with the present fires the country has again launched itself to the very top of global carbon emitters.

I think what might help to garner action both locally and globally is to call this year’s fire and haze disaster what it really is: the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 looks relatively benign compared to Indonesia’s 2015 fire crisis. And that spill was one heck of a disaster!

And I consider it a crime, not just a disaster, because even though setting fire to land remains perfectly legal in Indonesia, endangering the lives of millions of people, destroying protected forests and their wildlife, and threatening the global environment are criminal acts. This is especially the case because the fires could largely have been prevented by solid policies, land-use planning, and law enforcement. None of these were enacted, and the Indonesian government is ultimately culpable for its failure to act effectively.

The immediate solutions are obvious: a complete and enforced fire ban, especially on peat; a major scale-up of firefighting efforts, using all available means, national and international; and a prohibition on further peat development and funding for peat restoration. There is an immediate need to start divesting from all agricultural production on peat, or only allowing production that can ensure near-surface water tables. For the areas of drained, degraded peatland not under agriculture there need to be massive programs to block and fill all canals, followed by reforestation to get something like a humid microclimate at the peat surface.

None of this will happen without a fully committed government that focuses all its attention on overcoming this global disaster. There is no choice. If the government of Indonesia cares for its people, its economy, its wildlife, and for people elsewhere in the world, it immediately must do more.

Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.

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