Indonesia braces for peak dry season after massive 2019 forest fires

A firefighting team at work in Riau, Indonesia, during the dry season in 2019.
A firefighting team at work in Riau, Indonesia, during the dry season in 2019.PHOTO: PEATLAND RESTORATION AGENCY OF REPUBLIC OF INDONESIA

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The government seeks to double down on peatland fire prevention and law enforcement following the massive fires that ravaged much of Indonesia's forests last year.

As we enter the dry season, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya said the ministry has been creating artificial rain to prevent peatland fires in several fire-prone areas, with the help of the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).

The artificial rain has allowed Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra to overcome their "first critical phase" of land and forest fires from March to early June this year, she said.

The BMKG estimates that the 2020 drought season will start in June and peak in August, warning that dry conditions will typically induce hot spots.

''We are usually rather worried about the weather development in June or during Lebaran (Idul Fitri). We are now a little relieved but we need to remain alert for the second critical phase at the peak of the dry season in August. All relevant parties must increase their vigilance,'' Ms Siti said in a press statement on Monday (June 15).

Observers have cautioned against lax prevention efforts by a government already overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic response, ahead of another potential bout of forest and peatland fires during the current dry season.

The health and economic crises may still evolve into a catastrophe of smoke inhalation, overburdened hospitals, huge carbon emissions and damage to national resources.

Vigilance is crucial during the current Covid-19 crisis, Ms Siti said, so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes that allowed for widespread fires to occur last year.

Ministry data show that 1.65 million ha of forest and land burned in 2019, second only to the 2.61 million ha that burned during the 2015 massive fires. The 2020 figure currently stands at 38,772 ha.

According to Nasa, its Terra/Aqua satellite recorded a total of 837 hot spots in Indonesia between Jan 1 and June 9, already lower than the 1,380 hot spots recorded during the same period last year.

Satellite surveillance from Indonesia's National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (Lapan) shows that there were about 661 hot spots across Indonesia in the 48 hours up to Monday morning, with 177 hot spots detected in the last 24 hours alone.


On Tuesday, BPPT head Hammam Riza said the agency was ramping up its collaboration with the ministry and the BMKG in Sumatra and Kalimantan, in anticipation of the peak of the dry season in July, August and September.

The government is focusing prevention efforts this year on Riau, South Sumatra and Jambi, as well as West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and East Kalimantan - the provinces most susceptible to fires.

In the law enforcement space, the ministry said it had increased efforts following last year's massive fires.

From 2015 to May 28 this year, the ministry's land and forest fires law enforcement division (Gakkum Karhutla) recorded 4,625 reports of forest fire incidents. As many as 5,484 permits were placed under supervision, while 1,424 sanctions were meted out and 150 disputes settled. As many as 50 civil lawsuits were filed against companies for causing fires.

Most of the law enforcement was spread out across the past five years with the exception of 2019, which peaked with 1,429 complaints, some 1,734 permits placed under surveillance and 659 sanctions administered.

Of the 50 civil lawsuits, just 11 had reached a final and binding verdict - the state is owed a total of 19.4 trillion rupiah (S$1.9 billion) in restitution, but less than 1 trillion rupee has been paid off.

"We often face legal challenges (in law enforcement), whether from the state administrative courts or by way of judicial reviews.

"This shows that our law enforcement capacity is not nearly enough and that there is no deterrent effect," said Mr Rasio Ridho Sani, the head of the ministry's law enforcement division, during a recent online discussion.

Mr Rasio said the ministry would espouse a strategy that improved the law enforcement ecosystem going forward, whether in terms of infrastructure or human resources.

He also said legal instruments needed to be updated so that any court verdict, as well as any conduct by investigators, judges, lawyers and other amicus curiae, would be made in favor of the environment.

Kemitraan executive director Laode M. Syarif suggested that the ministry should reinstate its compliance audit for companies with land concessions as a form of checks and balances to prevent further forest fires.

A 2014 compliance audit of 17 companies operating mostly in Riau province had provided valuable resources in assisting law enforcement, Mr Laode noted.

"Compliance was nonexistent there. Not even one company can be categorised as lacking," he said.

"If possible, this compliance audit needs to be resumed. It would be easier to see which companies are or are not responsible for the land and forest fires."

Forestry expert Bambang Hero Saharjo of Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) said forest fire law enforcement required scientific methods to aid in an investigation.

Dr Bambang said law enforcement and experts had a wide array of methods to detect land and forest fires from satellite data, whether from NOAA-18, Terra/Aqua MODIS, VIIRS, Sentinel, and Nasa.

"Land and forest fires, whether started by accident or on purpose, can be investigated with many technological instruments and relevant laws. If more cases are exposed and processed, we can expect to reduce environmental damage and improve law enforcement," he said.

"Lastly, a restoration plan is a must because the damage persists (after the fires are doused). Restoration that is late for even a year will be rendered meaningless no matter how much the restoration costs are."