Source: The Jakarta Post
Date: 15 June 2020

Beleaguered and overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused public-health and economic crises, the government and plantation businesses seem relaxed about or unaware of being on the cusp of the annual bout of forest and peatland fires during the current dry season.

Even though the five-year cycle of El Nino does not fall on this year after the 2019 El Nino, which, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, destroyed 1.65 million hectares of forests, and the weather emergency in 2015 which razed 2.61 million ha, careless and reckless agricultural expansion could still set off a new wave of forest fires and thick haze.

The disaster would be unthinkable if the current health and economic crises and a new wave of forest fires converged into a triple crises during this dry season to spell another catastrophe of smoke inhalation and overloaded hospitals for patients with respiratory problems, huge carbon emissions and damage to natural resources.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's signing last year of a five-page order for a permanent moratorium on the issuance of new permits for businesses in primary forests and peatlands covering 66 million ha will be toothless without strong enforcement.

On paper, the permanent moratorium will remain effective until improved forest and peatland governance is achieved, meaning that no new permits will be issued in particular for the expansion of pulpwood and palm oil plantations. But reality in the field in Sumatra and Kalimantan could be 'business as usual' without strong oversight by central and local government authorities.

It is therefore imperative that the central and local administrations strengthen cooperation with large companies managing millions of ha of pulpwood and oil palm estates in Sumatra and Kalimantan to enforce preventive measures against forest fires during the May-October dry season.

The local governments, in cooperation with green NGOs, should aggressively supervise big plantation companies, notably those in fire-prone peatland areas of Riau and South Sumatra and East and West Kalimantan, to ensure their integrated fire management systems are constantly prepared and alert to prevent forest fires.

However, plantation companies cannot simply erect walls around their concessions by procuring equipment and training their own firefighting personnel and rapid-response teams. Historically, forest fires during the dry season are usually caused by a combination of several factors: "Slash and burn" for subsistence farming, land clearing for plantations, underground peat fires and accidental fires related to daily habits of the people, such as throwing away cigarette butts and failing to watch cooking stoves.

Therefore, the fire prevention and management system must from the outset include the education and empowerment of the people living around the concession areas. Keeping a close eye on fire and deforestation alerts during the current dry season would be a good indicator of the effectiveness of policies and good forest management.

Since plantation commodities have been among the least affected sectors of the economy by the pandemic and by the strict health protocols and social restrictions imposed by the government to prevent the virus spread , companies and farmers tend to resort to the 'business as usual' mentality in expanding their plantations.