The Ecologist

Sun sinking in smoke from Indonesia's burning forests and peatlands, Singapore, around 6pm on 21st September 2014. Photo: Yvonne Perkins via Flickr (CC BY).
Sun sinking in smoke from Indonesia's burning forests and peatlands, Singapore, around 6pm on 21st September 2014. Photo: Yvonne Perkins via Flickr (CC BY).
More articles about
Related Articles

Indonesia chokes as forest and peatland fires rip

The Ecologist

21st September 2015

The burning forests and peatlands of Indonesia are once again casting a pall of choking smoke across the region, in the process releasing billions of tonnes of carbon. Promises to solve the problems stand betrayed - and COP21 commitments to tackle the problem are being weakened.

President Joko Widodo will soon lead a large delegation to the Paris climate talks. Imagine the embarrassment for Indonesia if our commitments do not deal with deforestation and peatland destruction, responsible for most of Indonesia's emissions.

A thick smoke haze from the thousands of fires blanketing Sumatra and Kalimantan is testament to the government's failure to address forest and peatland destruction.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia's analysis shows 3,464 fire hotspots this year in Indonesia's peatlands, which make up a fraction of the nation's landmass, compared with 5,076 fires elsewhere.

More than 100,000 hectares of peatland forests are destroyed each year for oil palm and agricultural plantations. When peat swamps are drained, converted, and burned, large quantities of stored carbon are released into the atmosphere.

A 2010 report suggests that 85% of Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions stem from land use activities, with 37% due to deforestation and 27% due to peat fires. CIFOR research found that in 2012, forest fires in Riau province emitted 1.5-2 billion tonnes of in just one week in 2012 - around 10% of Indonesia's total annual emissions.

And last year 75% of fire alerts in Sumatra overlapped with peatlands according to a World Resources Institute analysis which warns: "Fires on peat burn longer and produce more smoke than other fires, and played a major role in the damaging smog and haze over the past year.

"Peat fires are also much harder to put out and release far greater amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than fires in non-peat areas, and they produce smoke that is associated with an increased risk of respiratory illness and heart attacks.

"Therefore, Indonesian authorities and others, including national and local governments, law enforcement officials, businesses, and communities, should prioritize prevention of peat fires, with special effort focused in the sub-districts and districts of Riau noted above."

Every hectare of coastal peatland contains 2,900 to 3,300 tonnes of carbon, according to CIFOR research published in January this year, and roughly half of that would be emitted over a 100 year period following conversion of forest to agriculture or plantation.

Bar the photo-ops, peatland drainage is in full swing

Last November Indonesian president Joko Widodo visited Sungai Tohor in Riau, one of the provinces most affected by peatland fires, and personally blocked one of the many canals dug to drain peatlands for plantations.

He identified conversion of forests and peatlands as the main cause of the annual smoke haze, and promised a thousand canals would be dammed in Riau with the government's help.

This year, while the area immediately upstream of the President's dam in Sungai Tohor has so far been safe from fire, the rest of the province's peatlands have not been so lucky, with only a handful of the thousand dams realised.

"The location of fires shows that they are clearly related to forest clearing and peatland drainage", said Teguh Surya, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia. "Greenpeace urges the government to undertake rapid intervention to protect peatlands and remaining forest areas, including best-practice mapping of the nation's peatlands."

And as WRI points out, the fires inflict terrible costs on Indonesia's environment, economy and health: "Each time Indonesia experiences a fires crisis, its economy and communities suffer terribly. Fighting the fires once they are ablaze is ineffective, extremely expensive, and dangerous for firefighters and surrounding communities.

"A comprehensive, proactive fires prevention plan, with a special emphasis on key subdistricts in Riau Province-involving government, business, and NGOs-can help ensure that Indonesia's forests continue generating economic, social, and environmental benefits for years to come."

No serious action forthcoming under COP21 'INDC' plan

But it seems that Indonesia's leaders have not been listening. The government recently revealed its draft Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution (INDC) submission for the COP21 climate summit. This document should have set out solutions to the ongoing deforestation crisis, which has pushed Indonesia into the ranks of the world's top GHG emitters.

But unfortunately - and despite Indonesia's commitments under the New York Declaration on Forests and the soon-to-be-ratified Sustainable Development Goals - the draft INDC fails to provide any commitment to zero deforestation, or peatland protection and restoration.

"President Joko Widodo will soon lead a large delegation to the Paris climate talks. Imagine the embarrassment for Indonesia on the world stage if our commitments do not deal with deforestation and peatland destruction, which is responsible for nearly two-thirds of Indonesia's GHG emissions", Teguh Surya said.

The current INDC was drafted with "cursory public consultation, and insufficient transparency of data sources", Surya adds. "It contains no analysis of Indonesia's emissions over the last ten years, no baseline predictions and no assessment of what carbon emission reductions are required of various sectors to meet the proposed new target."

While the previous target of 26% emissions reductions compared to business as usual by 2020 would genuinely reduce emissions, the new INDC target of only 3% additional emissions reduction by 2030 abandons this improvement to return to a rapidly rising emissions trajectory.

Indonesians have a right to know!

"The government's aversion to transparency extends beyond the figures in the INDC to a refusal to release land management information including detailed maps showing who controls forests and peatlands", comments Surya.

"Without land tenure maps in the public domain it is very difficult to identify who is responsible for forest and peatland clearance, and who is fuelling the current haze problem. It undermines the commitments of buyers and traders to end the trade of palm oil linked to deforestation.  

"Indonesians have a right to know who is behind forest and peatland destruction, and to have input into our INDC to ensure the government does something real to stop it. We won't let the government hide behind a smokescreen of its own making."



Principal source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

More information: Indonesia's INDC is not fit for purpose.

Media contacts:


Previous Articles...


Using this website means you agree to us using simple cookies.

More information here...




Help us keep the Ecologist platform going

Since 2012, the Ecologist has been owned and published by a small UK-based charity called the Resurgence Trust. We work hard to support the kind of independent journalism and comment that we know Ecologist readers enjoy but we need your help to keep going. We do all this on a very small budget with a very small editorial team and so joining the Trust or making a donation will show us you value our work and support the platform which is currently offered as a free service.

Join The Resurgence TrustDonate to support the Resurgence Trust