17 Mar Commentary: Learning from past year’s forest fires in South-east Asia
By Simon Tay, Wu Hui Juan and Aaron Choo
For The Straits Times
Fires have raged across the world in the past year.
The haze from fires in Indonesian provinces affected not only Indonesia but also Malaysia and Singapore.
The trans-boundary haze situation was the worst since 2015 and the economic impact on Indonesia alone was estimated at US$5.2 billion (S$7.3 billion), according to the World Bank. There were also costs at the global level in terms of the massive release of climate change gases.
Like fires elsewhere, the situation facing Indonesia is linked to climatic conditions, with many areas experiencing prolonged droughts and record high temperatures.
Indonesia suffered the strongest positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) since 1997 to 1998. A similar phenomenon to El Nino, IOD refers to the eastern Indian Ocean being cooler than normal, and the west being warmer than normal. As a result, rain moved towards the west, worsening drought conditions in Indonesia and Australia.
But there are also particular factors that bear attention. This is especially as experts fear that the coming year may see the problem recur or even worsen with the effects of climate change intensifying.
We should understand why the fires happened, and consider what can be done.
Indonesia’s forest fires are largely started by human actions, contrary to the law and best corporate practices. The Jokowi administration has sincerely committed to stopping the fires, and the success of the “blue sky years” was touted as part of its first-term legacy.
But there is widespread admission of some complacency in making efforts for fire prevention, preparation and mitigation in the run-up to the dry season.
Also, non-governmental organisations in Indonesia have complained that while some resource sector companies were charged with illegal burning after 2015, these prosecutions have not been concluded speedily and successfully.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that the 2019 general election in Indonesia may have distracted implementation.
Beyond the government, there is now also clearer indication on those who caused the fires. Satellite data indicate most of the fires started in many of the same provinces and districts as in the past.
However, the majority of the fires were outside of concessions held by the largest resource companies. This is a change from 2015 and suggests that the largest household-name corporations were not directly responsible.
Some try to excuse the fires, saying that the multitude of smallholders have little finance or alternative to using fires. But expert examination of the burn patterns suggests most fires come from larger-scale and systematic efforts to clear land for future planting.
This evidence has led to the belief that rather than smallholders, mid-sized resource companies pose the greatest risk of fires.
Unlike the big players, many of these companies have no international presence or commitments to sustainability. They are insulated from pressures to be sustainable.
Yet, compared with the smallholders, they operate on a scale that can make a sizeable negative impact.
Having said that, the 2019 fires and haze situation could have been worse. Following the 2015 haze episode, Indonesian provincial governments have restored peatland and improved firefighting capacity. The speed of their response time and coordination has increased; so has resource allocation. Community engagement programmes, fire prevention efforts and peatland restoration have all made positive impacts on the ground across many provinces.
In May last year, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) released a Haze Outlook report, predicting an “amber”, or moderate risk, of severe haze returning to this region later that year.
In the year ahead, we are developing this report to sharpen its use as an effort for early assessment of risk, with the aim of engaging stakeholders to ensure measures are put in place early.
Although Singapore has been haze-free for some months, the fires continue nearby. On Feb 11, the Indonesian province of Riau declared a state of emergency to fight forest and land fires – only three months after the last state of emergency, which ended in November.
Last month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered government officials to find a permanent solution to prevent devastating annual forest fires.
He has also extended the operating mandate of the country’s Peatland Restoration Agency, which was originally set to expire this year, to continue its work in re-wetting and re-planting peatland.
But despite these positive signs, observers are concerned that the Indonesian authorities may be distracted by regional elections being held this year, including in the fire-prone Jambi and Central Kalimantan provinces.
The focus of the Indonesian government is key to preventing fires in the year ahead. But there are consequential and supplementary actions that companies and others must lend to the effort.
With the largest multinational resource companies moving towards sustainability, a new focus must be brought to what the lesser-known, medium-sized companies do.
Efforts will be needed to engage them, both directly and through the supply chains that link them to the global trade in these resources.
Efforts are also required to engage and empower smallholder farmers and local communities.
There should also be efforts to reach these smallholders indirectly through the large corporations and traders who aggregate their production.
Another effort can be made in relation to companies incorporated in Singapore and Malaysia that have resource businesses and plantations in Indonesia.
Both countries now require that listed corporations report their ESG (environment, social and governance) practices, and this can be a lens to focus more on what steps they take to prevent fires.
Financial institutions should scrutinise the ESG practices of resource companies to prefer those with good records.
There are also two broader events to set the haze and fires in context in the year ahead.
The first is that Asean has set a target of achieving a haze-free Asean by this year. Yet not only has the problem in Indonesian provinces recurred, but there are also haze problems emerging in the northern parts of the region.
The second context is the global challenge of climate change.
Last year’s fires in Indonesia were considerably smaller in terms of burnt area than the fires elsewhere. But early estimates on the amount of carbon released suggest an outsized impact because many of the blazes were on peatlands.
As the world tries to cap the amount of carbon used, much attention is being given to nature-based solutions, including re-planting and keeping forests fire-free, and restoring peatlands.
In this context, the fires in Indonesia not only deserve our concern and attention but can also be potential investments to slow and stop climate change.
• The writers are from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Simon Tay, chairman of the SIIA, is an associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore. Wu Hui Juan is assistant director (sustainability) at SIIA, and Aaron Choo is assistant director of international affairs and digital media.