In 2015, massive fires burned across Indonesia, releasing hazardous smoke across neighboring countries. How close is the country to meeting its goal of reducing haze from future fires?
August 10, 2017 — Two years ago, Indonesia experienced the largest fire event in modern human history, with more than 2.5 million hectares (6 million acres) of tropical landscape burning, emitting more greenhouse gases than all of Germany does in a year. But the most visible sign of the disaster was the haze that spread across a huge swath of Asia; the particulates in the smoke sullying the air that tens of millions of people breathed. According to one study, the haze resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.
It was a watershed moment — and one the world knew could not be repeated as global attention focused on the role forests play in regulating climate during that year’s COP-21 climate conference. Fires in the tropics are dangerous, emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases and releasing toxins, especially when they sit atop carbon-dense peat bogs. But these disasters have become commonplace in Indonesia due to exploitation of peatlands.
“The root cause of this crisis was forest clearance and peatland drainage at large scale by the plantation sector, which has turned previously valuable ecosystems into huge monoculture plantations, while leaving remaining forests and peatland at high risk of burning,” says Annisa Rahmawati, forests campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia. For years, both palm oil and paper pulp industries built canals to drain peatlands across the country to expand production, which cause them to turn from wet landscapes to dry ones, ready to burn.
“Fires were a symptom of failed policies,” says Arief Wijaya, senior manager for climate and forests at the World Resources Institute Indonesia. “How the government managed land use was not effective.”
Historically, agencies at national and local levels distributed land to smallholders and large plantation companies under a patchwork system with no comprehensive national oversight. The result was overlapping and conflicting boundaries, making it impossible to determine who controls burned land.