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Commentary: Three things Jokowi could do better to stop the haze and forest fires in Indonesia

Entering the second term of his presidency, Jokowi must prioritise tackling the forest fires, say researchers Rini Astuti, Helena Varkkey and Zu Dienle Tan.

Commentary: Three things Jokowi could do better to stop the haze and forest fires in Indonesia

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo inspects a peatland clearing that was engulfed by fire during an inspection of a firefighting operation in Banjar Baru, southern Kalimantan. (AFP/Romeo Gacad)

SINGAPORE: Early in Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first term, Indonesia experienced some of the worst forest fires and haze in decades. 

Jokowi visited South Kalimantan in 2015, walking through charred peatlands to witness first-hand the fire damage. He then released a series of policies related to forests and peatland fires.

He merged the Forestry Ministry and Environment Ministry. He set up an agency to restore 2 million hectares of peatland. 

He created a task force to deal with haze emergencies. And he extended the moratorium on new plantations in areas of primary forest and peatlands, first enacted by his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo inspects a peatland clearing that was engulfed by fire during an inspection of a firefighting operation to control agricultural and forest fires in Banjar Baru in Southern Kalimantan province on Borneo island on Sep 23, 2015. (Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad)

It’s now clear Jokowi will be in office for the next five years. What is the impact of these policies and what could he improve in his second term?


The 2015 forest fires in Indonesia devastated 2.7 million hectares of land. More than 800,000 hectares were on peatlands. The losses cost more than US$16 billion.

The fires also produced 15.95 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per day. This was more than the daily emissions of the entire US economy, making Indonesia one of the major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions from land use change and the forestry sector.

READ: As temperatures rise, Indonesia's water-sharing can prevent transboundary haze, a commentary

In addition to thousands of premature deaths, researchers warned of the alarming long-term impact of the cross-border haze’s particulate matter being inhaled by infants in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Despite the El Nino effect predicted to be weak this year, Indonesia should still be gearing up for a long drought as well as a high risk of forest fires.

People take photos near the Singapore Flyer observatory wheel shrouded by haze on Aug 26, 2016. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

The restoration of degraded forest and peatlands needs to be top of the agenda to prevent a repeat of 2015.

Here are three things the Jokowi administration could do in this second term to prevent forest fires and haze and support the world’s efforts to curb CO2 emissions.

1. Make the moratorium on new permits on forest clearance permanent

Jokowi should make the ban on new permits affecting primary forests and peatlands permanent, instead of merely extending it for another two years.

The moratorium slated to expire on July 2019 was first implemented in 2011 under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The moratorium aims to protect 64 million hectares of forests and is part of Indonesia’s effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

READ: Indonesia to make moratorium on new forest clearance permanent - Minister

Banning the use of forests and peatland areas for new plantations can reduce fires because planters often burn cleared land to prepare it for planting.

We also recommend the moratorium include secondary forests (regrown forest areas after being logged) because many of these areas still have good forest cover and high biodiversity value.

Indonesian firefighters put out a fire in South Sumatra. Haze across much of Southeast Asia mostly comes from forest fires on Indonesia's western island of Sumatra, many of which are lit to clear land for plantations. (Photo: AFP/ABDUL QODIR)

Researchers recorded that Indonesia had a 60 per cent decrease in the rate of tree cover loss and an 88 per cent decline in primary forest loss in protected peatlands between 2016 and 2017.

Researchers also argued that this resulted from many factors other than the moratorium. These included rainfall, stronger law enforcement and increased public awareness about the health hazards of haze.

Whether the policies have direct influence or not is still debatable. However, one thing is clear: Stopping the issuance of plantation permits in forest areas and restoring degraded forests and peatlands are key to tackle forest and land fires.

2. Improve transparency and public access to forest land use data

Indonesia is known for its slash-and-burn activities to open up plantations, especially palm oil, which were blamed for the 2015 fires.

Hence, the opening up of palm oil plantation data is important to show who’s accountable for burnt areas and enforce the law. The government should improve its One Map Initiative to integrate maps across the nation and make data on who owns or manages palm oil plantations available to the public.

So far, the government has yet to show political will to provide open and transparent geospatial data.

A farmer harvests palm fruits at a palm plantation in Indonesia's North Sumatra province. (Photo: Reuters/Roni Bintang)

Jokowi’s administration has been reluctant to abide by the 2017 Supreme Court decision to open data on oil palm plantation licensing to the public. 

Forest governance expert Hariadi Kartodihardjo states that the government’s reluctance hinders the process of clarifying the status of 3.47 million hectares of oil palm plantations that overlap with forest areas.

Key to tackling this complex land tenure conflict in Indonesia is open and transparent geospatial data. This will also prevent the illegal development of oil palm plantations that are often connected to man-made forest and peatland fires.

President Jokowi has the power to set the political agenda to address the above problems and use necessary measures to improve public participation and access to One Map.

3. Promote community-based forestry programmes

The last recommendation is public participation, which involves giving legal access to communities living in forest areas under the social forestry scheme.

The government has a flagship national programme that aims to improve community access to 12.7 million hectares of forest, alleviate poverty and reduce illegal logging.

However, less than 20 per cent of its target has been achieved.

To speed up progress, the government has fast-tracked the permit process to cut the bureaucratic process from six months to 21 days.

(Photo: AFP/WAHYUDI) Oil palm firms in Indonesia and Malaysia have been routinely accused of deforestation and using slash-and-burn forest clearance that destroys the habitats of under-threat species, including orangutans AFP/WAHYUDI

READ: Farmers, fishers and local folk a casualty in Indonesia’s embrace with vested interests, a commentary

Aside from streamlining the process, the administration should also ensure the programme is socially just and helps communities switch to alternative, environmentally sustainable livelihoods.

There are case studies of community forest groups who can strike a balance between conservation and economy, such as the Bina Wana group of West Lampung district, where farmers produce non-timber products such as coffee and honey while protecting biodiversity.


Climate change is projected to increase the incidence of droughts, leading to a possible doubling of dry El Nino conditions. Hence, significant commitments is needed to reduce fires and haze.

So far, Indonesia has made substantial efforts to strengthen environmental and natural resources policies but there is room for improvement when it comes to ensuring environmental and social equity, as well as transparency in governance.

Entering his second term, Jokowi needs to place these considerations higher up on his agenda to avoid a recurrence of the 2015 haze.

Helena Varkkey is senior lecturer in International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya. Zu Dienle Tan is PhD Student of Department of Geography and Rini Astuti is research fellow, both at the National University of Singapore. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read it here

Source: CNA/nr


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