JAKARTA: Indonesia has scaled back protection for some of the world's most important tropical forests ahead of the worst season for fires because of budget cuts due to the coronavirus, the environment ministry said.
At risk are forests bigger than any outside the Amazon and Congo.
They are also home to more than a tenth of the world's mammal species - including the rare orangutan - and nearly a fifth of its birds.
Fires, often set to clear land for palm oil plantations in the world's top producer of the commodity, were the most damaging in years in 2019. It is still early in the June-October dry season, when most land is cleared, to get a clear picture of what's happening this year.
But according to an analysis of satellite data, the forest land thought to have been cleared in the first 24 weeks of 2020 was about 400,000 ha, an increase from 300,000 ha in the same period last year.
The economic impact of the coronavirus in the Southeast Asian country meant there had been a 50 per cent budget cut for the team that finds fires and helps put them out, an environment ministry official said.
"Integrated patrol areas had to be cut by 34 per cent," Basar Manullang, director of forest fire control at the Indonesian environment ministry told Reuters, referring to joint patrols by the forest fire brigade, army, police and civilian volunteers.
Meanwhile, layoffs resulting from the impact of COVID-19 were encouraging more people to clear land for crops using fire, said Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, director general of climate change control in environment and forestry ministry.
And social distancing rules imposed in some areas were making it harder to tackle fires.
"It hampers our access to the flames," he told reporters.
Indonesia's economy is forecast to shrink for the first time since 1999 as a result of the coronavirus, which has killed over 2,600 people, by far Southeast Asia's highest toll. Nearly US$50 billion is being channelled into emergency programmes, meaning cuts elsewhere.
The environment and forest minister told parliament this week that an extra US$35 million was needed to fight forest fires this year, while President Joko Widodo called for the tough enforcement of laws to stop illegal fires.
"99 per cent of forest fires occur because of humans," Widodo said.
Environmentalists said the impact of the budget cuts on efforts to stop fires could be dire.
According to Global Forest Watch's "deforestation alerts", satellite imagery shows an even greater rise in the loss of primary forest areas this year compared to previous years - areas where trees have never been felled and have the greatest diversity of species.
"There is a real risk of another ecological and health disaster in 2020," said Kiki Taufik, head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia Forest campaign.
Last year's fires were the worst since 2015.
According to official figures, at least 1.6 million ha of forest and other land were burned - more than 20 times the area of Singapore. Losses were estimated at US$5.2 billion while choking haze from the fires spread through the region.
Because of the budget cuts, a firefighter from the Indonesian Forest Fire Control Brigade in the fire prone Kalimantan island, said the force was looking at new ways to work.
"We are relying more on reports from the public because patrolling has reduced," Agus Maksum told Reuters. "We are also reaching out to the public via social media, on what to do if they detect a fire."
A cloud seeding programme to try to induce more rainfall to prevent fires was started in May, earlier than usual.