Fighting forest fires in Indonesia starts with getting the data right - In conversation with Edi Purwanto

Fighting forest fires in Indonesia starts with getting the data right - In conversation with Edi Purwanto

Indonesia - 22 October, 2019
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

Forest fires have been wreaking havoc in large parts of Indonesia, most of them set deliberately to clear land for oil palm plantations. A recent government moratorium on expanding oil palm in forest areas could help preventing forest fires in the future, but the lack of accurate spatial data is a main barrier to implement the moratorium, says Edi Purwanto.

In recent months, forest fires have been raging in large parts of Indonesia, especially in Kalimantan and Sumatra. The government deployed thousands of troops as temporary fire fighters, and used water-bombing aircrafts in an effort to get the burning under control. Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimates that fires have consumed 330,000 hectares as of September 15, emitting enormous amounts of carbon, and causing a haze that forced schools and airports to close. The fires filled the air with fine particulate matter, which causes respiratory illnesses, directly threatening the health of about a million people, and putting nearly 10 million children at risk. These have been the most destructive fires since the disaster year of 2015, and six of the most heavily affected provinces declared a state of emergency.

portrait Edi.jpgAccording to Edi Purwanto, director of Tropenbos Indonesia, the fires are ultimately a failure of governance. With more than 30 years of experience working with NGOs, researchers and government agencies to improve forest management in Indonesia, Purwanto is able to pinpoint which past decisions lie at the root of today’s emergency. Here, he talks about the causes, and what needs to be done to prevent forest fires in the future.

What are the causes of the recent fires? Companies and smallholders use fire to clear lands for oil palm plantations. This year we have had a very long dry season, which made that fires spread easily, especially in peat areas. Although farmers have been using fire to clear land for ages, the extensive peat land fires are a relatively new phenomenon. It started in the early 2000s, when the government decided to open up peat areas for plantation development, by handing out concessions to companies, and through transmigration schemes. Since then, large parts of the peat areas have been logged and drained, and this has made them highly susceptible to fires, which are very hard to control.

Are all fires intentional? Most of them are. Companies and smallholders want to expand the area under oil palm. We found that companies are now trying to persuade local communities to use fire to clear lands that neighbour existing plantations. In this way the company hopes to increase the supply of oil palm kernels to their mills. The Indonesian government prohibits expansion of oil palm plantations in forest areas, so some companies are getting more cautious. It is these companies’ deliberate strategy to convince local communities to clear new areas with fire, so the companies themselves can’t be blamed.


Last July, the Indonesian government approved a permanent moratorium on new permits to clear primary and peat forests. In September 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo had already signed a presidential instruction, installing a moratorium on all new licenses for oil palm plantations. This freeze will remain in effect for at least three years. It applies to all new requests for licences, as well as to concessions that were being considered, but had not yet obtained all necessary permits, and thus did not start operating yet. The Presidential instruction implies that regional governments need to conduct a comprehensive review of oil palm licensing data.

Will the oil palm moratorium be effective? The moratorium has been an important step, but after more than one year, local governments are not yet following up. Implementing the moratorium means that local governments need to review concessions by analyzing existing permits, the legal status of the land, and current land cover. The moratorium can only be implemented effectively when there is clear and accurate spatial data, but local governments lack the capacity and resources to gather this type of information, particularly when it comes to smallholder plantations, which are expanding rapidly. We are therefore helping local governments to collect and analyze data, using drones and GIS software.

Do local governments want to implement the moratorium? Governments are not always keen on enforcing rules to prevent expansion, because expansion equals economic growth. But in the long term it will be better for them if they implement and enforce the moratorium, because it is becoming a condition for investors. They do not want to run the risk to get into trouble. So we are now telling district governments that they will need to invest in better data, if they want to continue to attract investors. In addition, improving spatial data will increase the quality of strategic environmental assessments and district-level spatial planning, which are all needed to prevent fires in the future.

SUB: Firefighters battle a peatland fire in Sungai Pelang Village, Ketapang, Kalimantan, Indonesia


The lack of accurate data is a huge bottleneck, but more things need to change. Purwanto outlines three steps that are necessary. First, the government needs to get serious about fines and penalties, so companies will start changing their behaviour. “Better law enforcement will provide a deterrent effect,” he says. “Once the cost of penalties are higher than the benefits, companies will certainly stop using fire.” Second, responsibilities for fire prevention and suppression would need to be moved from the central government to local governments. “Local governments are now just standing on the sidelines,” says Purwanto. “They are waiting for the central government to act, while they are on location, and therefore in the best position to take action.” Third, the bulk of government funding allocated to tackle fires should go to structural prevention rather than fire suppression. In the current situation, large fires might be required to release government on-call budget. This may be a perverse incentive.

Are there changes that need to take place within the oil palm sector itself? I think we need to help independent oil palm smallholders to increase their productivity and prevent expansion at the expense of forests. At the moment, productivity of many smallholders is low, which is one of the reasons why they expand. So we need to provide them with better seedlings and technical assistance, and make sure they can become part of large companies’ supply chains on fair and equitable conditions. Also, in peatland areas that have already been converted, we need to help smallholders to set up sustainable agricultural practices that are suitable to the peatland conditions. This too, will eventually help to prevent fires.

What would need to be done at the international level? Whenever the fires are causing a haze in Malaysia and Singapore, these countries are quick to point their finger at Indonesia. However, many of the oil palm companies active here are actually from Malaysia and Singapore, so these countries have a responsibility as well. I would therefore hope that Malaysia and Singapore decide to intensify their collaboration with Indonesia on fire prevention, in the context of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Next to that, I think that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil should revoke certification of companies that have been linked to the fires, and that international funding and support for further oil palm expansion should be stopped.  

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