Forests burn for lack of law enforcement

This is the second of a two-parter on solutions to the haze crisis. The first, on Indonesia's land-use crisis, ran last week.

Fires across large parts of Indonesia this year for agricultural expansion have proved a very bad investment. Initial government estimates say the fires will cost the country about $47 billion.

That is about twice Indonesia's palm oil exports last year, which totalled US$17.5 billion (S$25 billion).

Agriculture, particularly to plant oil palms, is a major cause of natural forest loss and annual fires, which are used to clear the land for new plantations by companies and smallholders.

Volunteers extinguishing a peatland fire in the outskirts of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan province, late last month. Some half a million Indonesians suffered acute respiratory problems due to the haze. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Over the years, millions of hectares of forest land that belongs to the national forest estate, which covers about 70 per cent of the country, have been illegally granted plantation permits by local authorities. Many of these areas have also been cleared of trees, with the central government losing billions of dollars in lost timber revenue.

The palm oil sector contributes about 3 per cent of gross domestic product and directly employs about three million people. But no commodity is so important as to justify huge losses right across the economy, such as the health costs of half a million Indonesians who suffered acute respiratory problems, flight and local trade disruptions and economic losses to Indonesia's neighbours.

The fires have further tarnished Indonesia's image and international standing and reinforced just how poorly managed its agricultural sector is.

Shocked by the scale of this year's crisis, and their own level of unpreparedness, the administration of President Joko Widodo has pledged to put an end to the annual fires within three to five years.

To ensure the government succeeds, here are some solutions the administration needs to put into action and by which its action plans should be measured:


Illegality is rife in the agriculture sector, researchers say, yet there are very few prosecutions, providing little incentive for companies and government officials to obey the law.

Late last month, the National Police said they had declared 247 entities as suspects in the fires, comprising 230 individuals and 17 companies. Sixty-two cases were awaiting trial. In the coming weeks, more cases are likely.

The government must ensure all cases are fully prosecuted and those found guilty are punished with fines or jail time, or both. In the past, many cases failed to make it to court or mysteriously never reached a verdict. Non-governmental organisations and the media should monitor all fire-related cases in the coming months to hold the judiciary and the national and local governments fully accountable.

Illegal deforestation and land grabs should also be prosecuted as such cases are often linked to fires.


Indonesia has plenty of laws governing agriculture, land use and the environment. What it lacks is active law enforcement. Cases of illegal encroachment on forest lands, illegal granting of plantation permits, illegal fires, illegal forest clearance on concessions are routinely reported by NGOs but rarely acted on in any vigorous manner by the authorities.

Over the years, millions of hectares of forest land that belong to the national forest estate, which covers about 70 per cent of the country, have been illegally granted plantation permits by local authorities. Many of these areas have also been cleared of trees, with the central government losing billions of dollars in lost timber revenue.

A report last year published by the Washington-based NGO Forest Trends cites the findings of a survey by the former ministry of forestry. The survey, released in 2011, found local governments had issued permits to 537 plantation units in forests totalling 6.9 million hectares in three provinces of Kalimantan, without approval from the ministry.

The ministry estimated losses to the state at 158.5 trillion rupiah, or US$17.54 billion at the time.

For Indonesia to fight fires, illegal land grabs and deforestation, it needs to both investigate corruption in the police force and hold the police accountable for failure to investigate illegal acts.


Indonesia lacks a near real-time satellite monitoring system that can detect illegal forest clearance.

Brazil has two systems and backs this up with armed police to raid illegal logging camps or tackle farmers who illegally clear forests on their landholdings.


Indonesia's anti-corruption commission (KPK) has been successful in snaring former governors and district chiefs involved in illegal land deals. But their work represents a fraction of what could be uncovered.

The KPK, in collaboration with the mining ministry and other agencies, last year conducted an audit of mining permits in 12 provinces. More than 300 permits were suspended because of irregularities.

A similar review is needed for the agriculture sector to formally uncover and name companies and officials involved in illegal land acquisition and illegal land-use practices. The environment and forestry ministry has a long history of corruption in granting plantation concessions. The KPK needs extra resources to bring current and former officials involved in shady land deals to court.


This vital initiative, started under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono but is now largely stalled, needs to be completed. Indonesia's agriculture sector is a maze of overlapping land claims, contradictory concession maps and unclear land use plans, all of which conspire against tougher regulation and enforcement - but drives a huge trade in illegal land sales and burning.

One Map aims to create a single up-to-date, transparent and publicly available database overseen by the Office of the President. One Map has wide support from business and civil society, but is limping along because Mr Joko and his ministers have prioritised other development objectives, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The map would make clear what land is available and for what use and the areas that are off limits.


According to WRI, a significant portion of the fires start as legal small fires set by farmers to clear their land because it is a cheap, time-tested method. Alternative land-clearing practices could prevent thousands of fires. Mechanical equipment is one alternative but it is expensive. Low-cost financing through local microfinance schemes could bridge the cost gap.

The government should also encourage farmers to grow different crops to further diversify the agricultural sector to reduce reliance on some food imports and boost rural incomes.

All of these solutions would help the government craft a long-term plan to tackle the causes of fires and rein in poorly regulated land use. The government faces tough and costly choices, particularly on banning development in flammable peatlands and restoring large areas of peat already cleared and drained.

But these are necessary if Indonesia is going to ensure a sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural sector for its growing population.

In a couple of weeks' time, Indonesia will attend major climate talks in Paris.

With the world's third-largest extent of tropical forests, Indonesia should be a climate hero, using its carbon-capturing forests to help flight climate change. Instead, the Joko administration goes to Paris as part of the problem, not the solution.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Forests burn for lack of law enforcement'. Print Edition | Subscribe