How to Stop Indonesia's Massive Underground Fires

Could 2016 be the year when Indonesia starts to take real measures to end illegal destruction of its forests and peatland?

With the Paris climate change talks just a few weeks away, people are going to be talking about Indonesia.

Why? For the last couple of months, large swaths of Indonesia have been on fire, emitting crazy amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Researchers estimate that the last time it was this bad, in 1997, the fires released maybe as much greenhouse gas as the world did in almost five months-worth of fossil fuel burning. This year, the situation in Indonesia has been called “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century.” Through September and October, Indonesian burning emitted more than the entire United States economy.

While the fire season has certainly been exacerbated by this year’s strong El Niño, which extends the dry season, don’t be fooled into mistaking it for a natural disaster. “There are no natural fires,” ecologist Susan Page tells Inverse. Page has been studying the forests of Southeast Asia since 1993, and is the lead author of that study on the disastrous 1997 fire season. “All of the fires are started by people in some way or other, either accidentally or on purpose. These are not natural fire events, because the natural system is extremely fire resistant.”

How the fires got started:

Indonesians have used fire as a tool for clearing land for hundreds if not thousands of years, says Page. In the past, however, the fires have been mostly small and contained, because the wet environment prevents spreading. But in recent decades, small landholders and big companies have been digging drainage ditches through the moist peatlands on a large scale to make way for palm oil and timber plantations. Once stripped of its moisture, the thick layer of organic material catches fire easily, and once it does it smolders and spreads underground, uncontrolled until the rainy season comes.

A man carries a bucket of water as they try to extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields near his house at Ogan Ilir district on October 3, 2015 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

So if the problem is a human-made disaster, the solution should be easy, right? World leaders should band together in Paris and pressure the Indonesian government into action, right?

That is probably not going to be a helpful approach, if you ask Frances Seymour. “Governments are sensitive to adverse international attention, and it can help galvanize political will to do something,” she tells Inverse, but “the danger is that too much of the wrong kind of attention could backfire.” Seymour is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and used to be the director general of Center for International Forestry Research, which is headquartered in Indonesia.

Indonesians have a strong sense of nationalism, and for that reason they are particularly resistant to international criticism. “There’s a danger that those nationalist sensitivities could be pricked in the domestic political arena if it looks like Indonesia is being unfairly beat up on by the international community, or the international community is wagging its fingers,” says Seymour.

That doesn’t mean that the world should throw up its hands and do nothing, though. Here are some reasons to be hopeful about the whole thing.

The government has its own motivations for wanting to end the burning

It’s an obvious point but it bears repeating: The people most affected by the fires are the people in Indonesia. “The forest fires are a humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of thousands if not millions of people seriously affected in terms of their health,” says Seymour.

Thick smoke is seen as fire burns peatland and fields at Ogan Ilir district on October 3, 2015 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

The smoldering peat fires emit a particularly toxic haze, because they burn at a relatively low heat. At least 19 people have died. In addition to direct health effects, the haze has also interrupted the country’s social and economic systems, forcing closures of schools, businesses, and airports.

The government estimates that the haze could cost it $35 billion. The fires also strain relations with close trading partners in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, since enough smoke has wafted over to those countries to cause health consequences there, too.

So yeah, there are strong business interests in the palm oil and timber industries pushing to continue the status quo, but what government would listen, given the consequences?

“It’s important for those of us who live elsewhere and are focused on the Paris talks to remember to contextualize it as a local public health emergency, as well as its implications for global climate change,” says Seymour. “Because it’s really the former that will probably drive the politics of doing something about it.”

The Indonesian president is taking initiative on the issue

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) has shown that he is willing to stand up to the big business interests who want to see the continued drainage of the wetlands. In an October 23 cabinet meeting, he announced that no new licences for development on peatlands would be granted.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Indonesia President Joko Widodo in the Oval Office of the White House October 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. Widodo is cutting his visit to the United States short to return to Indonesia in order to manage the mass evacuation of thousands in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan due to toxic haze.

Martin H. Simon-Pool/GettyImages

Last week, the Minister of Environment and Forestry provided instructions to existing landholders outlining the policy changes. Not only will no new land conversion licences be allowed, but owners of existing plantations on peatland will be expected to manage the land in a way that is consistent with the natural hydrological cycle, according to a translation of the letter provided by Seymour.

“To me, that’s a really positive signal of political will, that it’s not just the president making statements, but his ministers — at least in this case — actually following through on a specific instruction to the licence holders to stop further conversions,” she says. “That goes beyond the firefighting agenda, just trying to put out the current fires, but moves into — how do you prevent fires in the future?”

The public mood has started to shift, too. “I interpret from some of the announcements and press coverage that’s coming out of Indonesia that there is a dawning realization that the rural economy that depends on cultivation of the peat swamps for fast-growing timber and for palm oil is not sustainable — that, by definition, if you drain a peat swamp you create a fire hazard,” says Seymour. “That’s just a huge reversal in the mindset of understanding the ecology of these wetlands — that actually they’re more productive from a societal point of view in their natural state.”

And Jokowi himself is a bit of a rebel. He’s positioned himself as a leader who sticks up for the little guy and doesn’t tolerate corruption. “If anyone can do it, he might be the one,” Seymour says.

The international community can help

Blaming and shaming the Indonesian government and people for their crimes will probably do more harm than good, but that doesn’t mean that other countries can’t do their part.

“I think there’s a way to thread the needle and call attention to the fires and offer international support in a way that doesn’t make it sound like, ‘Oh, you need to sacrifice your economy for the benefit of the rest of the globe that will be affected by climate change,’ but rather, ‘We understand that these forest fires are a catastrophe for Indonesian citizens and we want to help,’” says Seymour.

An aerial view of houses in peat swamp areas in Merang, during an aerial tour of the Sumatran forest taken by Greenpeace and South Sumatra Governor, Alex Noerdin on December 10, 2010 in District Musi Banyuasin, Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. 

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Here’s one model: Have wealthy countries pay the Indonesian government according to how well it is achieving its goals on peatland conservation and rehabilitation.

But what country would pay out of pocket to make this their cause?

Norway would. The country just finished paying out a billion dollars to Brazil for its successes in forest conservation. And it has had a similar agreement with Indonesia since 2010. So far, because of Indonesia’s lack of progress on the issue, the payments haven’t been made. But that’s a good thing — the whole idea of the system is that it rewards good behavior. The money’s still on the table for the government to take advantage of.

More countries ponying up more cash for this sort of program would probably help incentivize the Indonesian government to action, says Seymour. So would creating economic markets that favor Indonesian products that are produced sustainably.

Dismantling the entrenched systems of power that have allowed the peatland fires to continue for so long won’t be easy, but having the world throw up its hands and say ‘it can’t be done’ won’t get us anywhere.

“I think it’s all possible, and there are ideas out there and there are champions in civil society as well as in government as well as in some of the private sector companies who want to get this done,” says Seymour.

“Under the best of circumstances, it’s going to be a multi-year process with two steps forward, one step back. But the alternative is a scorched earth. For me, the only option is to be optimistic and be supportive of the people who are trying to do the right thing.”

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