The Culprit of Forest Fire

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  • Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire at a peatland in Kampar, Riau province, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Forest fires in Jambi, Indonesia, turn the sky red, making it look like Mars. The forests burn every year during the dry season, but this is the first time the sky turned red and the air quality is now too dangerous for people. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman

    Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire at a peatland in Kampar, Riau province, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Forest fires in Jambi, Indonesia, turn the sky red, making it look like Mars. The forests burn every year during the dry season, but this is the first time the sky turned red and the air quality is now too dangerous for people. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman

    TEMPO.CO, JakartaIf President Joko Widodo and his aides had been prepared to abide by the March 22, 2017, court ruling on the handling of fires in forests and land for agriculture, this year’s fires might have been prevented. 

    But instead of abiding by the ruling on the lawsuit filed by Indonesian citizens, Jokowi fought back by appealing, then going to cassation appeal and even asking for a judicial review after losing at every level of the courts.

    This ruling laid out in detail the government obligations to prevent and deal with fires over 2.6 million hectares of forests and cultivation land in 2015: from granting concessions to plantation companies, building pulmonary hospitals in Kalimantan and establishing fire evacuation zones to producing regulations to prevent more people falling victim to the fires. Jokowi and his ministers ignored this ruling and decided to oppose their own people.

    Therefore, when he speaks about preventing fires today – after 100,000 people have contracted acute respiratory tract infections in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and after 350,000 hectares of forest and land is ablaze – this determination is far too late. Forest and land fires can be predicted and calculated. Since 1997, there have been fires every long dry season, or when the El Nino occurs – every four to five years. This means that the government knows that there will be fires this year and next year.

    The source of the fires is always the same: peatlands that have become dry as a result of the hot season. Peatlands are the best ecosystem for retaining heat. Even without a flame, they burn if they are continually exposed to the dry season sun. Fires are carried by winds and break out in other areas. And according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, there are also fires deliberately set as the cheapest way to clear land for plantations.

    There is as yet no technology that can extinguish fires in peatlands: only heavy rain can do this. President Jokowi should look at the failure to deal with the extensive fires in 2015. At that time, he ordered the government to build new canals in peatlands in order to divert water from rivers. But this policy makes no sense: rivers are always lower than the land. During the rainy and dry seasons, water from peatlands flows into the rivers. Therefore, when the water sources shrink during the dry season, the land dries out and then starts burning under the heat of the sun.

    Jokowi has now ordered the Peatland Restoration Agency to continue the construction of canals with dams to retain water from the peatlands, so it does not flow into the rivers. However, these dams will not succeed as long as the canals are still spread out over the peatlands because water levels will be too low. The long-term solution is to close off the canals, protect peatlands from human actions and manage them through the restoration of the ecosystem.

    Jokowi should not use short term policies – especially if they are simply to make him popular. Threatening to dismiss officials might give the impression of strength, but it is not enough. Jokowi and his aides must draw up a long-term strategy to prevent the fires by involving experts. The road map has already been prepared. Simply abide by the court ruling. Start by obliging holders or forestry concessions in peatlands to revise their corporate work plans. Make them incorporate a regional conservation strategy as requested by the Anti-Forestry Mafia Coalition in 2017. After that, uphold the law.

    The forestry and environment ministry did the right thing by closing 105 companies alleged to have started fires. The government should not hesitate to prosecute them, impose large fines or revoke their concession permits. The government must oppose the narrative that accuses individual farmers of starting the fires. Even if some have, people who start these fires must be approached using a social partnership strategy. For example, they could be persuaded to develop a system of agriculture on peatlands.

    In the long term, the government needs to consider the proposal by environmental activists to apply the ecocide provisions against corporations who damage the environment. In a number of countries, this law has been effective in producing a deterrent effect because corporate destruction of the environment is equated to genocide, a grave breach of human rights. The president should not be afraid of a drastic decline in investment, because the protection of the environment will bring in clean investors, who will be protected by strong law.

    Read the Complete Story in this Week's Edition of Tempo English Magazine