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Latest Analysis - Peat Fire

The government is again wary of the double threat of forest and land fires as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. This vigilance is heightened during the peak of the dry season from August to October 2021 because it becomes a challenge for the government to focus its attention.

The threat of COVID and forest and land fires ┬ęPantau Gambut
The threat of COVID and forest and land fires ┬ęPantau Gambut

Flashback to the fires and pandemic

After the commotion of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019, it was a matter of months before panic hit Indonesia. Since March 2020, the government had learned that there were people infected with the coronavirus in Indonesia. Immediately, attention was focused on preventing the pandemic, including taking further economic measures. When the dry season arrived, environmentalists started to worry about forest and land fires. Thus, they reminded the government of the risk of double trouble, i.e. the haze due to forest and land fires and the pandemic.

In 2020, the fires were not as widespread as in 2019. Data from the Directorate of Forest and Land Fire Control of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry showed that the burned area in 2020 decreased around 81 percent. The forest and land fires covered an area of 1.6 million hectares in 2019. The data also showed that the burned area in 2020 was 296,000 hectares.

Pantau Gambut reported a 97 percent decrease in the area of burned peatlands. The data showed 769,938 hectares in 2019. This figure had fallen to 16,356 hectares in 2020.

The fire area was smaller due to the La Nina phenomenon (cold phase) in 2020. This phenomenon caused higher rainfall even during the dry season. However, the situation was different in 2019 due to El Nino (warm phase) which caused a longer dry season, resulting in decreased rainfall.

The government claimed that the reduction in fire intensity was due to collaborative efforts with various parties. In early 2020, President Joko Widodo chaired a national-level coordination meeting. The meeting discussed forest and land fires threat management. After the meeting, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry together with the national police issued a notice to urge all persons in charge of businesses or activities in the natural resources sector (forestry, agriculture, and plantation sub-sectors). They are obliged to make efforts to prevent and control forest and land fires.

However, all efforts to anticipate catastrophic fires were suddenly stopped in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Budget allocations and human resources have been diverted to handle COVID-19. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry acknowledged that there was a refocusing of the fire control budget for handling COVID-19. However, they denied that control activities were decreasing. They said that the activities continued with funding assistance from sources other than the State Budget (non-APBN).

Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, explained that handling fires remain a priority amid the pandemic. Supervision is still carried out by the forest and land fire task force in areas prone to fire. Siti Nurbaya had also written to the regional heads in early March 2020. She asked all parties, including the private sector and regional stakeholders, to be wary of fire disasters.

Given the urgency of handling forest and land fires, Jokowi held a limited meeting again on 23 June 2020. Jokowi emphasized four points, i.e. field monitoring activities, prevention, law enforcement, and landscape management.

Forest fire threat in 2021

In 2021, Jokowi gave directions at the National Coordination Meeting for Forest and Land Fire Control at the State Palace on Monday, 22 February 2021. The meeting was like an annual routine statement because there was nothing different from the directives in the previous year. The directives were about priority activities for prevention and monitoring up to the site level, peat restoration, and law enforcement. Jokowi held the meeting when the fires had already occurred in early 2021 in Riau, Central Kalimantan, Jambi, South Sumatra, and West Kalimantan.

Source: SiPongi, Ministry of Environment and Forestry (2021)

Based on data released by SiPongi, the forest, and land fire monitoring system in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the number of hotspots spread across all types of land (peat and mineral soils) was indeed low this year. This data was compared to the same period from January to July 2020. But we need to be careful because the number of hotspots increased significantly in July 2021.

Source: SiPongi, Ministry of Environment and Forestry (2020 and 2021)

The Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) reminded all relevant parties to anticipate forest and land fires until October 2021. However, rainfall was still detected in the middle of the dry season.

This year, the number of hotspots was less than in 2020. However, Pantau Gambut's analysis result found other specific things. The distribution of hotspots on peatlands turned out to be wider from January to July 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Hotspot analysis refers to the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor which focuses on peat areas (100 percent confidence level).

Peatland fires are difficult to extinguish and cause huge losses. The increase in the number of hotspots, especially in peat areas, should be a warning. The government must determine appropriate and fast measures to prevent fires.

Source: NASA FIRMS (2020 and 2021)

Challenges in handling forest and land fires during the COVID-19 pandemic

The analysis results of hotspots and fire history in early 2021 showed an increase when entering the peak of the dry season. The government must be vigilant and strengthen the forest and land fires management activities so that smoke disasters can be avoided.

When compared to 2020, the potential threat of double trouble will be even more severe this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We should not just repeat the efforts. It is important to develop them because the challenges are increasing when dealing with smoke disasters during the pandemic.

The government tries to prevent fires through various collaborative activities, such as monitoring hotspots in an integrated and independent manner, where the task force disseminates information related to forest and land fires to the communities. It is very important to increase the role of the local community (Masyarakat Peduli Api/ MPA) as a community paralegal group who is aware of the law regarding arson.

These activities may still be constrained due to restrictions on community interaction and activities. This is because the government wants to stop the transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19, which is more dangerous than the coronavirus at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic.  The delta variant (B.1.617.2) is more contagious than other variants. It is 55 percent more contagious when compared to the alpha variant. A study from a health institution in Scotland stated that people infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus had twice the risk of being hospitalized. The risk is higher for infected persons with comorbidities.

To prevent the adverse effects of the delta variant and forest and land fires, the government needs to increase the effectiveness of their management activities, such as by using weather modification technology. This technology has been used in Riau, with the first phase carried out from 10 March to 5 April 2021. As a result, rainfall increased by about 34 percent to 64 percent. The increased rainfall at the cloud seeding locations was around 194.3 million cubic meters. In the second phase, the rainfall increased by two percent in Riau in July 2021.

The weather modification method is more effective if there are clouds that can be seeded into the rain. It is more effective when done during the rainy season, transition season, and at the beginning of the dry season. During this time, weather modification technology is used to wet peatlands as well as fill the canals and dams to provide water for the firefighters. But currently, we find decreased rainfall in several fire-prone provinces. In fact, some provinces experienced fires in an area larger than in 2020. This fact raises the question, is weather modification technology an effective strategy?

Landscape management constraints

Restoration is one of the landscape management activities to improve the peat ecosystem. In Indonesia, the state agency authorized for this activity is the Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The observed areas include community work areas (non-concessions) and licensed areas (concessions).

Every year, each agency reports the restoration area (hectare) over a certain period. Restoration of non-concession areas is often described in stories or field documentation.

But peat restoration activities in licensed work areas are not fully transparent. The public does not know about the progress of restoration activities carried out in those areas. Pantau Gambut's investigation in 1,222 sample points from 43 concessions in seven provinces found sad results because only less than 10 percent of companies carry out restoration activities.

This finding has raised doubts about the government's commitment to managing the landscape, particularly related to the protection of peat ecosystems. Landscape management is one of the effective and efficient activities to prevent forest and land fires.

The irony behind the restoration

To provide food during the pandemic, Jokowi launched a food estate program which is included as the National Strategic Project. This large-scale program reminded us of the failed government project under Soeharto's regime, i.e. the Mega Rice Project in 1996. In 2010, there was also the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate project during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration.

Jokowi's food estate project was planned for 2020. Initially, the project targets Central Kalimantan, a province with peatlands. Then the project also targets Jambi, North Sumatra, West Kalimantan, and Papua.

The government ensures that the project has gone through various analyses to prevent negative impacts on the environment. However, the food estate project actually has a tendency to damage the environment, especially the peat conservation areas, because it involves draining activity. Agricultural activities on peatlands are only possible in shallow areas. So, it is important to consider several things, i.e. using natural fertilizers, maintaining the peat’s wetness, and choosing the type of rice that can grow in wetlands.  Agriculture in peat areas has the potential to cause degradation due to draining activities. If the large-scale agriculture project is continued, it will dry out the peatlands, making them prone to fire.

The results of Pantau Gambut analysis in the Strategic Environmental Assessment document for the Central Kalimantan, Jambi, and North Sumatra regions showed that the planned food estate areas are located in several National Parks, including Sebangau, Berbak, Kerinci, and Gunung Leuser.

The planned food estate areas are also located on peatlands which have different characteristics from mineral soil. Peatlands are very easily damaged if they are not managed carefully according to the rules. Therefore, any plan to use peatlands for plantations or agriculture must be reconsidered.

Bloated Budget Caused by the Smoke

If forest and land fires occur during the peak of the dry season this year, the costs needed to deal with them would certainly increase. In fact, firefighting activities on land and from the air are not fully effective in extinguishing fires on peatlands.

If a fire occurs, the government of high-risk provinces will be overwhelmed by the two major disasters. The government must realize that the haze disaster and COVID-19 are increasingly burdening the economy and public health. They must make effective policies to avoid repeating the same failures and adding problems on peatlands.

Author             : Agiel Prakoso

Editor              : Bram Setiawan