Government efforts to prevent the recurrence of forest and land fires and the noxious haze they produce have not gone far enough toward stopping the problem. KataData explores why these blazes keep flaring.
Forest fires and smog, now regular visitors during the dry season in Indonesia, are responsible not only for environmental damages and pollution. They also put a dent in the country's economy, harm the health of millions and disrupt public activities and education.
In short, the costs are great. But why are these blazes and the noxious smog they produce perennial? The government has issued policies and actions to mitigate these disasters, particularly after the devastating fires of 2015. So why do they keep occurring?
One of the most talked-about causes of these forest and land fires is climate change.
The El Nino weather phenomenon, for example, occurs once every three to eight years, producing severe drought due to a lack of precipitation. The worst forest fires in recent history occurred in 1997 and 2015, both El Nino years.
However, El Nino is just that one cause of these blazes, because forest and land fires are also strongly related to human activities.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor states that clearing land for palm oil plantations can trigger forest and land fires. And many active fires or “hotspots” have been recorded on the concessions of plantation companies.
Number of fire hotspots (per December 2015 and 2019)
Based on data from Global Forest Watch, an open-source web application from the World Resources Institute that monitors global forests in near real-time, 179,424 hotspots were recorded in 2015. Sipongi, a website managed by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry to monitor forest fires, recorded 2.6 millions hectares of land burned that same year.
Areas where land burned (by hectare)
The number of hotspots declined between 2016 and 2018, with 18,217 hotspots recorded in 2017, the lowest number for the five years prior. In 2019, however, that number spiked to 87,474 hotspots and 857,755 hectares burned.
Comparisons between fire impacts in 1997, 2015 and 2019
Table divided by Land Burned (across millions of hectares) (Lahan), Victims of Respiratory Infection (Korban ISPA), Economic Losses (Kerugian Ekonomi) and Carbon Emissions Emitted (Karbon)
Okto Yugo Setiyo, the deputy coordinator of the environmental nonprofit Riau Forest Rescue Network (Jikalahari), said recurring forest and land fires are the result of low law enforcement. Part of the problem, he noted, is that law enforcement only arrests individuals instead of bringing certain corporations suspected of wrongdoing to trial.
The police were quick to arrest and charge 25 men for starting the fires in Riau in 2015 but slow to do so with corporations, Yugo said.
In 2015, for example, 18 companies were found to have had fires within their concessions. But 15 of them received a letter from the police saying they were terminating their investigations due to insufficient evidence, Yugo said.
However, Jikalahari monitored active fires in the plantation areas of the 18 companies and found that the hotspots on land belonging to those 15 companies remained as high if not higher than the companies that went to court.
The ministry admits that legal action has yet to act as a deterrent for companies where fires are found to have started. But officials say it’s taking steps in that direction.
“It is the ' shock therapy’ phase and it will happen again. Currently, we are improving it to give a deterrent effect,” said Sugeng Priyanto, the Ministry’s Director of Monitoring and Administrative Sanction.
Smog in the land of the Yellow Lancang
Ayang Nurmika, 42, lives in Pekanbaru, Riau, a province on the central eastern coast of Sumatera where fires have continually flared in recent years.
She recalls bringing her two-year-old grandchild to the hospital during the fires last year because he was having trouble breathing.
“They [hospital staff] just lay my grandchild on top of the administrative table. No attending doctors that walked us by would touch my grandchild,” said Nurmika. “Meanwhile, my grandchild’s body turned blue.”
After waiting for several hours and reaching out for help from a district representative, the family got a room and the child recovered. But Ayang was disappointed because the government was unprepared to provide health facilities for residents impacted by what has become an annual problem during dry season.
Ayi Nuri Andre Labamba, 36, lost two children because of damaged lungs in 2011. Her third child showed the same symptoms in 2019, vomiting yellow fluids on a daily basis.
When the Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Human Rights, Wiranto, and the head of public relations for the National Police, M. Iqbal, claimed to the media on 18 September 2018, “Riau’s air is okay, not like reported in the news”, Ayi was shocked.
“We are racing with death here. Schools have been off for two weeks,” Ayi said in reflection. “Those gentlemen only been here for several days, but made such hasty judgments.”
Small particulate matter resulting from the fires is usually less than 2.5 micrometers in size and can easily enter the lungs. The levels of particulate matter in smog vary depending on the type of vegetation burned and the weather.
Based on the ministry’s Sipongi data, the amount of land that burned in Riau in 2019 fell by almost half, to 90,550 hectares in total compared to 183,808 hectares in 2015. However, the air pollution index in 2019 was higher than in 2015 (see chart below).
The number of acute respiratory infections in Riau in 2019 was nearly four times higher than in 2015, reaching a total of 309,883 people. Nationally, at least 900,000 people suffered from acute respiratory infection due to the 2019 forest and land fires.
Forest and land fires also resulted in early deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded eight deaths, ranging from children to the elderly, during the 2015 forest and land fires in Riau. News reports from Antaranews, CNN Indonesia, and Republika stated that the 2019 forest and land fires killed at least two elderly people and a three-day-old infant.
Losses due to forest and land fires in Riau (2015 and 2019)
Broken down by economic loss (in trillions of rupiah); social loss (in respiratory infections (ISPA) and deaths); and environmental loss (by thousands of hectares burned)
Looking at the causes of land and forest fires
Identifying the causes of forest and land fires is the key to determine the policies needed to prevent them from happening. There are several factors causing forest and land fires in Indonesia. Some of the most discussed are:
Plantations in peat areas
Indonesia has the world’s second-largest peatland area. The research institution Global Wetlands stated in 2019 that Indonesia’s peat areas covered a total of 22.5 million hectares, following Brazil with a total of 31.1 million hectares.
Peat bogs are wetlands composed of organic matter, such as fallen trees, grass, moss, and decayed animals. This matter collects over thousands of years, and because the land is so saturated it takes much longer to break down, eventually forming a thick sediment. Peatlands store 57 gigatons of carbon, 20 times more than tropical rainforests or mineral soil, according to Pantau Gambut, a nonprofit online platform that provides information on peatland restoration activities. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Research and Development department states that one gram of peat can store 180-600 miligrams of carbon versus mineral soil, which stores only 5-80 mg.
The growth of plantations in Indonesia has resulted in more peatlands being cleared. But because crops like acacia and palm oil cannot grow in wetlands, plantation companies usually build canals to drain water out of the peat.
Business permits for forest product use in Industrial Plantation Forests (IUP-HHKHTI) on peatland (red) and outside peatland (in orange) in Indonesia, 2019
Draining the peatlands releases carbon into the air and makes these drained peat area prone to fires. Fires on peat can even burn up to four meter below the surface of the land for long periods of time, spreading as they do so and creating even bigger fires.
According to a WRI analysis, draining one hectare of peatland in tropical areas releases 55 tons of carbon dioxide, the same as burning 6,000 gallons of gasoline. And once that peat is drained, it will continue to release the same amount of carbon in subsequent years.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Walhi, (2015) and the World Resources Institute (2019) recorded the number of fire hotspots inside areas licensed for several different land uses: Industrial Plantation Forest (HTI) areas for the paper industry; Forest Exploitation (HPH) and forest with Business Permits (HGU) for palm oil plantation development.
Hotspots found in concessions on peatland in Indonesia, 2019
Type of Concession
Data not found
Source: WALHI (2015) and WRI (2019)
Based on data from Pantau Gambut, 53% of forest and land fires in 2015 occurred in peatlands. WRI, which monitored throughout 2019, also found thousands of hotspots in concession areas on peatlands. Most of these hotspots turned into fires in 2019.
This activity is considered the trigger for forest and land fires. But it is not a new practice as Indonesians have been burning land to prepare it for planting for generations?
One type of shifting cultivation practiced by people in Riau for many generations is merun, a type of burning conducted on mineral soil to help fertilize it. Based on observations from Jikalahari, this tradition did not lead to massive fires, but it was not conducted on peatland.
Local people also have their own strategies to prevent the fires from spreading. Before burning, they set up a water canal one meter from the outer border of the lands to be cleared. They also ensure sparks will not be carried by the wind to other lands. After burning the required areas, they immediately put out the remaining fires.
Nevertheless, the government says it wants to prevent land burning for cultivation.
“There are breakthroughs tested in several areas, however, its adoption is less than expected,” said Nazir Foead, chief of the Peatland Restoration Agency, referring to measures his team tried to implement to reduce the risk of fires.
Yugo from Jikalahari said massive forest and land fires became more prevalent when land began to be cleared for palm oil and acacia plantations in the late 1980s. Because each company can obtain concession licenses for up to a million hectares, concessions on mineral soil became exhausted. Companies then set their sights on permits on peatlands.
Climate and weather cycle
The weather phenomenon El Nino also triggers forest and land fires through high temperatures and lack of rain.
The rainfall from March to December 1997 was 50% below average, estimated at an average of 1,145 millimeters per month compared to the usual 2,215 millimeters. These conditions triggered massive fires in Indonesia, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan where peatland is abundant.
Based on data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), average rainfall in 2015 reached 1,871 mm/year with an average of 144.4 rainy days per year compared to an average of 179-212.1 rainy days between 2011-14.
Low rainfall, followed by El Nino and massive land clearing by burning, made forest and land fires in 1997, 2015, and 2019 inevitable.
Speaking at the end of 2019, Dwikorita Karnawati, head of the National Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics (BMKG) agency, said that 2020 will not have a long dry season and there’s a chance El Nino will not reach Indonesia.
“However, we still need to stay alert,” she noted.
Policies to prevent forest and land fires: Where are we now?
After 2015, the Indonesian government issued three regulations related to forest and land fire prevention. However, it has struggled with implementation. Among the challenges are a lack of criteria for strict sanctions and no transparency in peatland restoration areas, including inside concessions.
Agiel Prakoso, a research analyst doing independent monitoring of peatland restoration for the World Resources Institute (WRI), said the government had been fast in responding to forest and land fires, but it needs to improve the synergy between all stakeholders.
“No more overlapping regulations and policies. No more different versions of policies which negate the main policy announced by the government,” said Prakoso.
Here’s a detailed look at some of the regulations issued major fires swept across Indonesia in 2015
Presidential Instruction No. 11/2015 on Forest and Land Fire Prevention
This is the basis for forest and land fire control. Its focus is mainly on preventing forest and land fires from happening, fire-fighting, post-fire management and forest and land restoration.
Under this instruction, 26 government agencies, including ministries and institutions that have jurisdiction over the issue, coordinate to control forest and land fires. It also sets out strict sanctions for individuals or companies.
The Directorate of Forest and Land Control creates a guidance known as "Mitigation and Adaptation Plans Related to Climate Disasters.”
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) only focuses on prevention, not mitigation.
The number of hotspots recorded in 2016, 2017, and 2018 was reduced.
Routine patrols are implemented.
Prevention efforts are siloed and don’t involve collaboration among different sectors/agencies.
Forest and land fire control reporting is not standardized, transparent or informative. A report on forest and land fire control efforts was only made after a lawsuit by civil society in 2017.
Campaigns, socializations, and outreach begin aimed at curbing forest fires.
No criteria exists for strict sanctions on forest and land fires culprits.
The directorate of forest and land control builds local community involvement.
No clear explanation/elaboration on the scope of forest and ground fire control systems.
KLHK sets up the Fire Care Society (Masyarakat Peduli Api) tasked with public consultation on forest and land fires.
“President Jokowi’s administration learned important lessons from the 2015 forest and land fires. So many correctional steps have been taken … Indonesia, known for its burning peatlands, instead became other nation’s reference to learn.”
- Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment and Forestry. Source: PPID KLHK, July 2019.
"Post-2015 forest and land fires, the President issued the Presidential Instruction (Inpres) No. 11/2015 on Accelerating on Forest and Land Fires Control. However, the Inpres has yet to be implemented and seriously monitored.”
- Raynaldo Sembiring, Deputy Director of Program Development ICEL. Source: Times Indonesia, September 2019.
Presidential Regulation No. 1/2016 on Peat Restoration Agency (BRG)
BRG was tasked with restoring 2 million hectares of peatland in seven priority provinces between 2016 and 2020. The provinces are Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Papua. The target was revised to 2.6 million hectares under the Peat Restoration Agency Chief Decision No. SK.16/BRG/KPTS/2018.
The hydrology, vegetation and the social-economical carrying capacity of degraded peat ecosystems is restored.
BRG does not provide information related to restoration implementation, such as location and the total areas already restored.
By the end of 2019, a total of 778,181 hectares of peatlands were targeted for restoration, but the projects have not been completed.
The protection of peat ecosystems as life support.
BRG as a nonstructural agency does not have working units at the regional level and has limited staff.
Fire hotspots in 2017 and 2018 declined.
Sustainable peat ecosystem management is rearranged to make it more sustainable.
Implementation at the regional level stalled due to bureaucracy and administration, such as 1) limited time to execute the budget; 2) The Regional Peat Restoration Team’s (TRGD) plan is not in line with BRG’s plan; 3) data verification stalled because of the auction process; 4) change of leadership at the local level prompted a re-start of the socialization process for restoration plans.
BRG collaborated with the Ministry of Legal and Human Rights to establish legal aid in villages that are part of the Peat Care Villages program. It also worked with BNPB to see that these peat villages were disaster resilient.
Policies at the ministerial level on peat restoration are contradictory.
143 villages allocate a total of Rp16 billion for peat restoration in their village budgets.
“In the future, we believe that efforts or solutions will continue on because peat restoration is a marathon, involving a lot of people and companies.”
- Nazir Foead, Chief of Peat Restoration Agency (BRG). Source: Bisnis.com, February 2020.
"There are good plans available from the government, but it’s the follow ups. So, after you build something, there should be maintenance and monitoring that it works according to the plans."
- Agiel Prakoso, Research Analyst for Peatland Restoration Project in WRI Indonesia. Interview Katadata, January 2020.
Based on research from the Madani Berkelanjutan and the Riau Advocacy Group (KAR), two groups that focus on improved land and forest management, there were 737 fire hotspots in Riau from January to March 2019. From that number, at least 96 percent, or 709 fire hotspots, were found to be in areas prioritised for peat restoration. In fact, 100 hotspots were recorded in concessions belonging to just one company.
The target for peatland restoration in Riau between 2016 and 2020 is 836,000 hectares, with 700,000 hectares in concession areas. BRG focuses on restoring peat outside concession areas, while the concession areas are under the ministry’s supervision.
However, the BRG targets to date have not been achieved. By 2018, the agency had only restored 77,000 hectares of peat. Jim Gafur, head of the Emergency Unit of Riau’s Disaster Mitigation Agency, said the reason for not achieving the target was a minimum level of coordination between BRG and Riau’ Peats Restoration Team.
Monitoring and maintenance of restoration areas also needs to be improved, he said.
It is important to re-wet peat and build canals to preserve the water quantity of the peat as this will minimize fires. Most of the canal blockings built by BRG are no longer working. “Either they’re broken or someone deliberately damaged them,” said Gafur.
The Environment and Forestry Ministerial Regulation No. 32/2016 on Forest and Land Fires Control
The ministerial regulation (Permen) on the guidance of Forest and Land Fires Control explains the plan, how it will be organized, the operation, monitoring and evaluation for related parties. It includes organizational explanations related to forest and land fires, human resources, facilities, people’s empowerment and funding. In addition, it also sets up steps permit holders are required to follow.
Patrols begin to prevent and tackle forest and land fires.
Not all companies comply with the facilities requirements, such as having back-pumps and special vehicles for organizations that tackle forest and land fires.
Regional governments and the police set up a system for local people to monitor forest and land forest in their own areas.
Governments and companies do socialization to prevent forest and land fires.
Lack of empowering MPA by the government, so they tend to work on their own. MPA also lacks funding and facilities, mostly coming from their initiatives.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry’s regional/district office set up reservoirs on the specific spots to support forest and land fires prevention.
Minimum sanctions are in place for organizations not doing their roles in preventing forest and land fires.
“Generally, we are grateful that we can handle it in 2019. Especially, when compared to other countries with forest and land fires issues.”
- Mahfud MD. Coordinating Minister for Politics and Law. Source: PPID KLHK, December 2019.
“When the president is said to be coming, public health centers suddenly set up as posts and the costs for acute respiratory infection [treatment] were free. That was a bit late.”
- Okto Yugo Setiyo. Deputy Coordinator of Jikalahari. Katadata interview, December 2019.
Efforts to prevent forest and land fires have not just been undertaken by the Central government. Regional governments, which serve as the main authority when it comes to issuing land-use permits have also taken action. However, coordination is still the main challenge.
The Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Forestry for law enforcement in Indonesia were merged.
A lack of coordination between central and regional governments and other institutions leads to a blame game among agencies.
Burned areas in 2019 declined 64 percent compared to 2015.
Multi-legal instruments were created and divided into three separate areas (administrative sanctions, criminal and civil laws)
The legal procedures involving companies and individuals suspected of starting the fires lacks oversight. No transparency during the trials.
Law enforcement on companies involved in the forest and land fires (per 1/10).
3 suits filed
5 on trial
9 waiting for adjudication
64 prohibited from operating
20 PMA (foreign companies)
Data-based monitoring through SiPongi begins.
Human resources, especially for regional level monitoring, is limited.
Patrolling by the Manggala Agni (an organization to prevent forest and land fires on the central level) in prone areas.
No firm sanctions from regional administrations for the recurring cases.
“It’s people’s choice to think that (the ministry) plays favorites, but we’re not. Because, law enforcement involves the police, and us. We handle the civil suit because of ecological damages.”
- Sugeng Priyanto. Director of Monitoring & Administrative Sanction KLHK. Interview Katadata, January 2020.
“But, you need to think how to prevent these burned areas from becoming ‘idle’ lands, which would potentially get burned down in the next year. Law enforcement must be accompanied by follow up actions.”
- Agiel Prakoso. Research Analyst, Peatlands Restoration Independent Monitoring, WRI. Katadata Interview, January 2020.
Forest and land fires still loom
Negative impacts loom if efforts to prevent these forest and land fires fail. At just an environmental level, the fires will lead to biodiversity loss, declining land productivity, and an increase in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said the losses due to forest and land fires could reach into the trillions of rupiahs, and he’s warned about the potential effects of the loss of various species.
“We don’t want this to happen, losing biodiversity that can’t be valued with money,” he said at a National Coordination Meeting for Forest and Land Fires Prevention at the State Palace in Jakarta in early June.
WRI Indonesia says continued forest and land fires could also slow Indonesia’s progress on reducing deforestation, after becoming the only nation that has managed to reduce its deforestation rate in recent years.
Tree Cover Loss in Indonesia (in thousands of Ha)
Economically, the damage could also be great, with fires impacting everything from agriculture to trade to tourism to transportation. According to the World Bank, fires cost Indonesia US$5.2 billion (Rp72.9 trillion) in 2019, equal to 0.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Direct damages to assets reached US$157 million, and losses from economic activities, many of which stopped due to the smog, reached US$5 billion.
Smog also closed down 12 airports, along with hundreds of schools in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
And the fires increased diplomatic tensions between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s Deputy Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis sent a note to Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, in September 2019 imploring the Indonesian government to take immediate action to put out the forest and land fires that had caused thick smog to blanket its neighboring countries. Majlis also asked Indonesia to carry out preventive actions.
During an interview with Katadata in January 2020, BRG Chief Foead pointed out that it wasn’t just Indonesians who suffered from the fires. “Smog from the fires will lead to long-term diseases,” he said. “The ones being the victims are not just our people, but also other people in different islands or countries.”
The health impacts of these fires are also likely to get worse if rapid action isn’t taken, as a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia Universities found. Their study, “Fires, Smoke Exposure, and Public Health: An Integrative Framework to Maximize Health Benefits from Peatland Restoration,” showed that if forest fires prevention is not effective, then excess mortality due to exposure to air pollution from fires are predicted to reach 36,000 in affected areas between 2020 to 2030.
The people hit hardest will be those living in areas where forest and land fires are most aggressive, the researchers noted, predicting that of the 36,000 early adult deaths estimated due to smog between 2020-2029, 92% will occur in Indonesia, 7% in Malaysia, and 1% in Singapore. Their predictions use adjoint sensitivities to relate fire emissions to PM2.5 for a range of meteorological conditions and find that a Business‐As‐Usual scenario of land-use change leads.
Smog from Indonesia travels to Malaysia and Singapore, 2015
Modeling by Harvard and Columbia universities found that 36,000 untimely deaths could occur if left unchecked.
It also predicts a decline in intact forest cover from 54% to 49% and 45% to 28% in peatland intact forests. Much of this forest clearance on peatlands is due to the expansion of both non-forested areas (13 to 29%) and plantations and secondary forests (54 to 62%) in Sumatra, and non-forested areas in Kalimantan (11 to 27%).
The fires also produce intangible costs. WRI Analyst Agiel Prakoso said these losses are similar to children losing their rights to education or people being deprived of health care access. And they harm the environment’s ability to provide basic services, such as clean air and water.
He worries, too, about the long-term impact widespread burning could have on farmer’s productivity.
“Slowly, their psychology will be affected. They will think ‘why do we need to plant if there are going to be fires next year,’” Prakoso said.
To ensure these prevention measures don’t fail, Foead underlines the importance of synergy between different agencies.
“We are working with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Home Affairs .... regional administrations, companies, NGOs, local people and academics,” he said.
This year, all related agencies need to work together to anticipate forest and land fires.
Reporting for this project was supported by a grant from Internews' Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and Resource Watch, a project of the World Resources Institute.