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 pandemic, said the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
At risk are forests bigger than any outside the Amazon and Congo and which are home to more than a tenth of the world's mammal species - including the rare orang utan - and nearly a fifth of its birds.
Last year, Indonesia saw the most damaging fires in years in its forests. Fires are often set to clear land for oil palm plantations in the world's top producer of the commodity. It is still early in the June-October dry season - when most land is cleared - to get a clear picture of what is happening this year.
But according to an analysis of satellite data, the amount of forest land thought to have been cleared in the first 24 weeks of this year was about 400,000ha, an increase from 300,000ha in the same period last year.
The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the South-east Asian country means there has been a 50 per cent budget cut for the team that finds fires and helps put them out, said a Ministry of Environment and Forestry official.
"Integrated patrol areas had to be cut by 34 per cent," Mr Basar Manullang, director of forest fire control at the ministry, told Reuters, referring to joint patrols by the forest fire brigade, the army, the police and civilian volunteers.
Meanwhile, layoffs resulting from the impact of the pandemic were encouraging more people to clear land for crops using fire, said Mr Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, director-general of climate change control at the 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 Covid-19, which has killed over 2,600 people in the country, by far South-east Asia's highest toll. Nearly US$50 billion (S$70 billion) is being channelled into emergency programmes, meaning cuts elsewhere.
The Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Parliament this week that an extra US$35 million was needed to fight forest fires this year, while President Joko Widodo has called for the tough enforcement of laws to stop illegal fires.
"Ninety-nine per cent of forest fires occur because of humans," Mr Joko 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, and in 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 Mr Kiki Taufik, head of Greenpeace South-east Asia's forests campaign.
Last year's fires were the worst since 2015.
According to official figures, at least 1.6 million hectares of forest and other land were destroyed - 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, the force was looking at new ways to work, said a firefighter from the Indonesian Forest Fire Control Brigade on fire-prone Kalimantan island. "We are relying more on reports from the public because patrolling has reduced," Mr Agus Maksum told Reuters.
"We are also reaching out to the public via social media, on what to do if they detect a fire."