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Indonesia ‘handles forest fires better than other countries’

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Indonesian firefighters battle a peatland forest fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra. ABDUL QODIR/AFP

Indonesia ‘handles forest fires better than other countries’

Indonesia Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD played down on Friday recent reports from several organisations regarding Indonesia’s forest fires this year, saying that the country is better off than others that also have forest fires.

“We are thankful that in 2019 we could handle forest fires better than other countries that also have troubles with forest and land fires,” he said after attending an inter-ministerial coordination meeting at the Environment and Forestry Ministry.

“While we still had fires in several different places in 2019, Indonesia is the most secured,” he added.

The issue has been in the spotlight after a report from the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) found that this year’s forest fires in Indonesia have released more carbon emissions than the forest fires that are raging in the Brazilian Amazon.

CAMS said the total estimated equivalent amount of carbon emissions from forest and land fires in Indonesia was 720 megatonnes, almost twice that of Brazil’s 366 megatonnes between January 1 and November 30.

Deputy Environment and Forestry Minister Alue Dohong previously denied that the country’s forest and land fires were the sole cause of global problems and he pointed the finger at forest fires in other countries, particularly Brazil.

“I think forest fires are not only faced by Indonesia. If you take a look at Brazil, how many millions of hectares are burned there?” he said on Wednesday in Madrid.

Ministry data shows that a total of 942,485ha of land were burned between January 1 and October 31 in Indonesia, while a recent report by an environmental research group, the Centre for International Forestry Research (Cifor), estimated that 1.64 million hectares were burned over the period across seven provinces in the country.

The different methods that were used in estimating the scope of the fires could be the reason behind the difference between ministry and Cifor data.

The ministry analyses data based on hot spot images from the Landsat 8 OLI/TIRS satellite, combined with reports from the ground to create the data, while Cifor data uses Google Earth Engine with images of burned land taken by Sentinel-2 satellites.

Experts, however, have advised against playing the blame game. CAMS scientist Mark Parrington said that, although the carbon figures were “equivalent”, a direct comparison between Brazil and Indonesia was “not particularly meaningful” due to differences in vegetation and fuel types burning in the two places.

“We cannot compare between carbon emissions [in Indonesia and Brazil] because calculating carbon emissions in peatland uses a different method,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaign team leader Arie Rompas told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

Comparing the severity of forest fires based on the size of the fire is also misleading, experts say, as the countries do not have the same percentage of forest coverage relative to overall land.

“From an area perspective, the size of forest fires in Indonesia are smaller than in Brazil because Indonesia has smaller forest coverage. The size ratio is around 1:3 if I’m not mistaken,” World Resource Institute Indonesia forest and climate senior manager Arief Wijaya said.

A more objective approach would be to compare the percentage of the forest engulfed in fire, he added.

Comparisons aside, both experts agreed that better law enforcement was needed to protect Indonesia’s shrinking rainforests.

“If we take a step back, we can see that, globally, forest fires are a symptom of poor land-use governance. To fix that, we need better law enforcement,” Arief said.

Greenpeace also criticised the government for failing to collect penalties from corporations that were found guilty of causing environmental damage by burning land and forests.

“Currently, there is still 18.9 trillion rupiah [$1.34 billion] in fines that haven’t been paid by corporations. Despite a court verdict demanding them to pay, the government has failed to collect it,” Arie said.

In addition to enforcing the law, experts also say that peatland restoration is needed to prevent forest fires from occurring in the future.

“Because the fires occurred in peatland areas, where it was purposefully made dry then burned, the government must restore the peatland so it becomes moist again. Peatland areas that were affected by the fires must be restored and the ones that are still in good shape must be protected,” Arie said.

To prevent forest fires next year, the ministry’s forest and land fire control director Raffles Panjaitan said the government was ready to roll out initiatives, including handing out incentives to villages in forest-fire prone areas that did not burn land to make way for farms or plantations.

“The government would hand out incentives to villages in fire-prone areas so they could diversify their income and stop burning land to plant oil palm trees,” he said.

He said the incentives would vary and include increased amounts of village funds for villages that stopped burning land.



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