World's oldest rainforests burn as Jokowi scales back promises

An Indonesian soldier dragging a hose while fighting a peatland fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra province on the island of Sumatra on Sept 30, 2015.
An Indonesian soldier dragging a hose while fighting a peatland fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra province on the island of Sumatra on Sept 30, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Having promised to extinguish forest fires in Riau in western Indonesia by early October, President Joko Widodo jetted into Sumatra island last week for a progress check. The smoke was so thick his plane couldn't land, forcing him back to the capital.

Exacerbated by dry conditions from El Nino, the haze has blown across Southeast Asia, blanketing Singapore, parts of Indonesia and Malaysia in a smog that has closed schools and forced some people to flee their homes. In what has become an annual "haze season" ritual, governments are bickering about who is to blame and how to fix things, fearing a hit to tourism and economic activity.

So far Mr Joko, known as Jokowi, is following a similar track to his predecessors: Threaten to punish the palm oil and other plantation companies whose land is ablaze and send soldiers in to help fight the fires. But unless he addresses the broader factors behind the burning off, the chances are the haze will keep coming back.

Jokowi's maneuverability is limited by a decentralised system of government put in place in 2001 in the world's largest archipelago that has coalesced power around local officials and potentially made it harder to tackle corruption on the ground. There's also been little effort over the years to address a complex system of overlapping land permits where forest is illegally burned to claim ownership and increase the value to sell for plantations.

"There is no strong control, no strong standards on making decisions at the local level," said Bustar Maitar, head of Indonesia forests for campaign group Greenpeace. "Jokowi should create strong standards to follow."

Fire hotspots have been burning all year in the tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo, but the government only acted after complaints by neighbor Singapore and as haze in the area surged.

The worst of it has been in Indonesia itself: A pollution index at Palangkaraya in central Kalimantan province reached 1,990 last week, more than five times the level considered "hazardous," and around 125,000 people in the country are suffering haze-linked health issues.

"The government seems to be working slow in handling this, we have lived three years like this with smoke," said Helda Satriani, a resident of Rumbai in Riau who is nine months pregnant with her first child. "Government, please, take immediate action!"

- Old rainforest -

Jokowi took office a year ago promising to address structural bottlenecks in Southeast Asia's largest economy, from building infrastructure to making bureaucracy more efficient. He came to power with high expectations given his success in tackling red tape as Jakarta governor. Since then, he's run into roadblocks from vested interests and even his own party, causing unease among investors and helping make the rupiah Asia's second-worst performing currency this year.

After his September pledge, Jokowi has scaled back expectations, saying in a BBC interview this week it could take three years to see results. 

South-east Asia has some of the oldest continuous rainforest in the world, part of a swathe that once ran from Malaysia to Northern Australia. Much of Sumatra has a thick canopy of trees covering waterlogged peat soil, an early form of coal, which is drained when logged, leaving a vast area of tinder that can explode and smolder for extended periods.

The fires may be extinguished by November, the country's disaster agency said on Thursday.

- Discouraging landowners -

Still, "it's ridiculous for Widodo to say this will take three years," said Keith Loveard, head of political risk at Jakarta-based security company Concord Consulting. "What is required is the application of the law in a manner that discourages landowners, small and large, from continuing this practice, in other words tough penalties handed down without exception."

The government devolved power to the regions to prevent the archipelago from breaking apart after the end of dictator Suharto's three-decade rule and the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Dubbed the Big Bang decentralization, Indonesia almost doubled the share of government spending to regions and transferred almost two thirds of the central government workforce, according to a 2003 World Bank report.

Re-centralising land permits may not be possible as the country is too big, but establishing a master map with clearer ownership would be a step forward, said Kevin O'Rourke, who wrote "Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia."

- Single map -

Jokowi told Bloomberg in February he wanted to create a single map for all provinces to prevent overlapping concessions, though there's been no detail since.

"If we can have one map by 2020, that will be very helpful," said Aida Greenbury, the manager for sustainability at Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of whose suppliers PT Bumi Mekar Hijau has been named a suspect for causing fires. There are 500 licenses held by other companies across the land in its supply chain, and while burning has no value for APP it triples the price others can sell land for, she said.

In a country with traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practices, local communities are allowed to burn up to 2ha of land per family. Prevention of illegal larger scale burning has been limited, with the government freezing permits for four companies so far.

- Multiple hats -

"Mid-level companies are using a lot of families to burn," said Arief Perkasa, a Jakarta-based manager at TFT, an environmental supply chain organisation. Cutting forest is 20 times more expensive than burning it, he said.

The financial benefit from the fires may be US$856 (S$1229) a hectare for farmer group organizers, village heads and land claimants, Herry Purnomo, a forestry scientist for the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, said in a report last month. They get thousands of dollars more from planting palm over the years.

"Many players benefit enormously from fire," Purnomo said. "These players wear multiple hats, e.g. farmers, politicians, businessmen, government officers."