TEGUH, chief of the village of Henda, in the Indonesian portion of Borneo, enters his office brimming with apologies for being late. The acrid scent of smoke wafts from his clothes. He explains that he was guiding police and firefighters to a fire just outside the village. A farmer had decided to clear his land by burning it. Henda sits amid Borneo’s vast peatlands; the fire had set the fertile soil smouldering for nearly 24 hours. It was a small fire, he says—perhaps a couple of hectares—but Mr Teguh still struggled to contain his exasperation, given the destruction wrought by fires set for land-clearance just a year ago.
Last year, in the autumn for the most part, at least 2.6m hectares of Indonesia’s forests burned—an area the size of Sicily. The fires blanketed much of South-East Asia in a noxious haze and released a vast plume of greenhouse gases. Much of the island’s interior was reduced to sickly scrub; along its roads stand skeletal trees, reproachful witnesses to the ravages they endured. Indonesia’s forest fires alone emitted more greenhouse gases in just three weeks last year than Germany did over the whole year. The World Bank estimates that they cost Indonesia $16bn in losses to forestry, agriculture, tourism and other industries. The haze sickened hundreds of thousands across the region, and according to one study, hastened over 100,000 deaths.
This year, happily, has seen no repeat of last year’s conflagration. Indonesia’s government would say that is because it took resolute action. Having entered office seemingly indifferent to conservation, Joko Widodo, the president, universally known as Jokowi, created a government agency charged with restoring peatlands, the site of around half of last year’s devastation. He issued a presidential moratorium on new palm-oil plantations and ratified the Paris agreement on climate change, committing Indonesia to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 29% by 2030.
Downpours or directives?
But many environmentalists attribute the diminished burning this year to steady autumn rain rather than official resolve. After all, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor, also promised to halt deforestation, to little avail. He launched a showy crackdown on illegal logging when he took office in 2004. In 2009 he pledged to reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 26% below the level they were then expected to reach by 2020. A year later Norway promised Indonesia $1bn if it managed to stop cutting down its forests; Mr Yudhoyono declared a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions and renewed it in 2013. But by March of this year Norway had delivered just $60m of the promised billion. “We haven’t seen actual progress in reducing deforestation” in Indonesia, Norway’s environment minister admitted.
In recent years no country has lost forest at a faster rate than Indonesia (see chart). Between 2000 and 2012 around 6m hectares of primary (meaning virgin) forest disappeared, mainly on the islands of Borneo (Kalimantan to Indonesians) and Sumatra. Roughly 40% of the deforestation took place in nominally protected areas. First come the loggers; clear-cutting and burning follow, to make way for palm-oil or timber plantations. Kalimantan’s lowland forests are almost entirely gone, and as better roads make the highlands of the interior more accessible, forests there are vanishing too. Virtually all of the haze last year came from fires on those two islands.
Indonesia contains around 14.9m hectares of peatland—most of the world’s tropical peat forests. Fires there are uniquely harmful, for several reasons. Peat is soggy and acidic, which prevents organic matter from decaying fully. That makes it a wonderful store of carbon—until it dries out, at which point it becomes flammable. Indonesia’s peat forests were unusually vulnerable last year, due both to efforts to drain peatlands to grow crops (in their natural state they are too waterlogged for agriculture) and to drought. The haze came not just from burning tree stumps, but from the smouldering soil, too.
Peat forests can be as much as 200 times more damaging to the atmosphere when burnt than other types of vegetation, both because they store more carbon and because more of it is released as methane, an especially harmful greenhouse gas. The average incinerated hectare emits the equivalent of 55 metric tonnes of carbon. Peat forests also take far longer to regenerate than forests on mineral soils. The canals that now ribbon Kalimantan’s forests remove water from peatlands, impeding restoration and leaving them more fire-prone. Between 2000 and 2010, peatland cover declined by 41% on Sumatra, 25% on Borneo and 9% on Western New Guinea.
Sinan Abood, a geospatial analyst with America’s Forest Service, calculates that more than one-quarter of pulpwood concessions and more than one-fifth of palm-oil concessions are located on peatland. Companies grab this land not for its productivity—mineral soil is far better suited to agriculture—but because locals own or work more productive land. Bribing an official and getting immediate access to thousands of hectares of nominally protected land is easier, quicker and cheaper than negotiating with those communities.
But Indonesian politicians friendly to big palm-oil or pulp-and-paper companies like to pretend they have community interests at heart. They fret that conservation measures would harm smallholders—individual farmers with just a few acres. Faced with evidence of illegal deforestation, politicians shrug: Indonesia is a big country, they say, and policing every two-hectare plot across 13,000 islands is impossible. In fact, a paper published in 2013 found that almost 90% of deforestation in Sumatra between 2000 and 2010 was done by big palm-oil firms. Similarly, most of the deforestation in Kalimantan results from large-scale conversion to agriculture or timber plantations.
Humala Pontas, the head of environmental rehabilitation for the provincial government of Central Kalimantan, works in the department that reviews applications for forest concessions. Almost all of them are approved. But it is nearly impossible to tell, he says, whether companies stick to the terms of their concessions. Central Kalimantan is immense, and its provincial government small and poor. “We have no monitoring system,” says Mr Humala. “Last year we gave 40,000 hectares for cutting—but we have no way of knowing if they used 40,000 or 400,000.”
That is a familiar story across Indonesia, where decentralisation has saddled local governments with more responsibility than they can handle. Most are simply unable to stop powerful interests bent on deforestation. Many do not want to: the financial and political benefits from allowing business to proceed as usual often exceed those from following national policy decided thousands of miles away in Jakarta. Sometimes the incentives are terrifyingly blunt: activists tell tales of attempts to enforce forestry laws being met by men with machine-guns.
Added to a lack of capacity is a woolly governmental structure that makes it difficult to know just where the buck stops, and easy for officials to pass it. WALHI, an environmental pressure group, has filed a lawsuit over deforestation in Central Kalimantan. Among the defendants are the provincial governor and parliament, as well as Jokowi and the national ministries of health, environment and agriculture—all of which have some role in forest policy. Mr Yudhoyono’s moratorium came from the forestry ministry (now merged with the environment ministry), but the agriculture ministry handles licensing for palm-oil concessions. Such divisions are replicated at the local level, and the various entities rarely co-ordinate with each other.
This lack of enforcement makes it difficult for multinational firms that buy Indonesian paper and palm oil to adhere to their own policies against deforestation. A study published earlier this year by Greenpeace, another environmental pressure group, found that only one of 14 multinationals surveyed could trace its palm oil back to the plantation where it was grown. None could say with certainty that they did not use palm oil from recently deforested land; most could not say how much of their palm oil comes from suppliers that meet their standards and how much comes from third parties that do not.
This is not entirely due to sloth or negligence. Although satellites now enable real-time monitoring of Indonesian forests, overlapping land claims make it impossible to use those data to determine responsibility for deforestation, according to a recent paper by David Gaveau, a remote- sensing specialist with the Centre for International Forestry Research, which is based near Jakarta. Farmers often plant on companies’ concessions, and firms often clear land outside their allocated areas. The satellites can detect forests going up in flames, but only observers on the ground can determine who set them alight.
There are a few modest reasons for hope. The bureaucracy is showing marginally more resolve: arrests for starting fires are up, and several companies have been fined or otherwise sanctioned for their role in last year’s conflagration. Jokowi has continued to push Indonesia’s OneMap initiative, which would gather all land-use data in one place. Nazir Foead, the head of Indonesia’s new Peatland Restoration Agency, has a conservation rather than an industry background, and seems to have the president’s ear. Indonesia’s highest Muslim authority has issued a fatwa condemning intentional forest burning.
Individual Indonesians are doing their part, too. In a churchyard near Henda, Mr Teguh pushes aside some plastic sheeting on a crude bamboo greenhouse, and proudly displays rows of native hardwood saplings. He grows hundreds of thousands each year to help reforest peatlands in Kalimantan and Sumatra. He plucks a wrapped sapling, twig-thin but crowned with a spray of healthy, spiky leaves. “This is the best we can do to help God,” he says. It will take far more than that, alas, to return Indonesia’s forests to health.