Extent of fires' impact still unclear

An Indonesian national board for disaster management MI-17 helicopter water-bombs a fire spot over Ogan Komering Ilir area, in South Sumatra province, on Oct 17, 2015.
An Indonesian national board for disaster management MI-17 helicopter water-bombs a fire spot over Ogan Komering Ilir area, in South Sumatra province, on Oct 17, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

The fires behind the smouldering thick haze that has covered many parts of South-east Asia in recent weeks have ravaged through 1.7 million hectares of land in Indonesia, according to estimates by the Joko Widodo administration.

That is the equivalent of burning the entire island of Singapore 24 times over in a space of just weeks.

Yet, experts say it is still too early to tell how the mass burning, mainly in forests and plantation land across the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, will impact the pace of global deforestation in the long term.

One of the key reasons is that, despite the ongoing multilateral firefighting effort led by Indonesia, with support from Singapore and Malaysia as well as other countries, the fires and haze have yet to show any signs of abating.

In fact, the dry spell caused by an extended El Nino season this year has not only made it harder to put out the fires - half of which are burning over dry peatland - but it is also expected to prolong the crisis.

Over the past 25 years, the growth of oil palm plantations, now covering 11 million ha in Indonesia, has been a leading cause of deforestation. The clearing of land for oil palm is considered to be one of the most destructive for wildlife and biodiversity, says Research Assistant Professor Luke Gibson from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.

There are also other factors, such as whether fires were started in virgin forests or land that had been previously cleared for cultivation.

That is why experts like Dr Nirarta Samadhi from Washington-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI) say that, although closely linked, the correlation between Indonesia's fires and deforestation remains quite complex.

For instance, much of deforestation is carried out without fire, and not all fires lead to deforestation, he explained. "Our satellite analysis finds that many fires are lit on land that has already been cleared, usually to prepare land for agriculture."

The institute's Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative provides detailed mappings and analyses of forest fires around the world. Some of its findings show that the fires in Indonesia could have also occurred within palm oil, timber and wood fibre tree plantations, where fires could have started outside before spreading into these areas.

While efforts have been made to reduce deforestation through initiatives like the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme by the United Nations, Indonesia was said to have the second greatest annual forest area reduction, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation last month.

The country accounted for a forest loss of 684,000ha per annum from 2010, just behind Brazil which saw a loss of 984,000ha per annum.

The UN, however, noted that the rate of deforestation globally has slowed by half, partly due to improving forest management. But estimates by the Centre for Global Development still show that 289 million ha of forests would be felled by 2050 and, if current trends persist, 169 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will be added into the atmosphere by then (see graphic).

There is a consensus that this year's haze and forest fires are on track to becoming the worst in history, with severe consequences on wildlife and carbon emissions levels being released into the air.

Experts like Professor Euston Quah, who heads Nanyang Technological University's department of economics, are of the view that global deforestation projections could be underestimated.

"For exceptionally intense dry weather together with the complication of peat soil, the likelihood of a strong and prolonged forest fire episode is very high," he said, pointing out that the El Nino phenomenon this year has been predicted to be the strongest in the last five decades.

There are other factors to consider, and one of them is that the number of plantations should have also increased since a similar crisis in 1997 - considered to be one of the region's worst bouts of the haze. With the increase in plantations due to economic progress, the extent of burning and the number of hot spots caused by man may, therefore, be higher, added Prof Quah.

Assistant Professor David Bickford, from the National University of Singapore's department of biological sciences, said Indonesia's estimate of how much land has been burnt could be on the low end of the spectrum, but it is difficult to accurately measure the extent of fires.

He also said that while the 1.7 million ha of land in Indonesia is indeed an enormous area to be on fire, it still falls short of the land burned between 1997 and 1998 during the EL Nino Southern Oscillation (Enso). Severe effects of an Enso event ranges from abnormally heavy rain to drought and forest fires.

According to the Centre for International Forestry Research's website, the carbon storing potential of tropical peatland forests is up to five times more than tropical forests.

GFW data shows that this year has been one of the worst years for fires, with thousands of high-confidence fire alerts over the past two months - likely to be associated with forest land. Numbers peaked at 1,189 on Sept 8, exceeding the highest peaks of the last two years.

Over the past 25 years, the growth of oil palm plantations, now covering 11 million ha in Indonesia, has been a leading cause of deforestation. The clearing of land for oil palm is considered to be one of the most destructive for wildlife and biodiversity, says Research Assistant Professor Luke Gibson from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong."Most forms of agriculture require some amount of deforestation - oil palm is at the worst extreme," said Prof Gibson.

Wildlife like those in Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan - home to one of the world's largest populations of orang utans - are also feeling the heat.

Said Prof Bickford: "If the fires burn primary forests and peat swamp forests in protected areas, the impacts for biodiversity will be tremendous and tragic and mostly irreversible."

THE HAZE YOU CAN'T SEE OR SMELL

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Extent of fires' impact still unclear'. Print Edition | Subscribe