Indonesian firefighters try to douse a peatland fire in Riau province on northern Sumatra on 31 July.

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Indonesia’s fires are bad, but new measures prevented them from becoming worse

Once again haze is suffocating Indonesia, but some scientists say it could have been worse. Acrid smoke from fires set to clear land for agriculture has sent scores to hospitals with respiratory problems and closed thousands of schools in Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia. At its thickest, in mid-September, more than 100 flights had to be canceled because of poor visibility. Although the government has tried to seed clouds for rain and dump water from the air, only the monsoon rains due later this month are likely to quench the fires.

Yet countermeasures Indonesia has taken since the last major haze event, in 2015, have helped limit this year’s disaster. A new agency is restoring degraded peatlands, where agribusiness has drained and dried out meters-thick layers of waterlogged vegetation, making it vulnerable to ground fires that are almost impossible to stop. The government has also beefed up a moratorium on the conversion of prime forest land underlain by peat. The efforts “are providing some positive results,” says Arief Wijaya of the Indonesian branch of the World Resources Institute in Jakarta. But virtually all experts agree that more is needed, including stricter enforcement of a ban on setting fires.

Small farmers in Indonesia have long practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, and in recent decades large corporations have industrialized the practice. They own long-term concessions to develop plantations within publicly owned forests, many in swampy landscapes rich in organic material. Concentrated in the coastal plains of Sumatra, Borneo, and Papua, these peat forests provide a habitat for rare species such as orangutans, leopards, Sumatran tigers, tapirs, white-winged ducks, and freshwater turtles. But in the 1980s, concession holders started to dig drainage canals through peatlands to float out logs and dry out the peat to plant dryland crops, especially oil palm and acacia trees for pulp and paper. Fires they set to clear the land can burn out of control.

Peatlands play an outsize role in the hazes because dry underground peat deposits provide “an inexhaustible supply of fuel,” says Robert Field, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University who studies Southeast Asia’s haze. And because the very ground is burning, “the fires can’t be contained until the monsoon.” They release not just smoke, but vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Indonesian tropical peatlands, 36% of the world’s total, hold an estimated 28.1 gigatons of carbon, according to a 2017 study—more than all the country’s upland forests.

The conflagrations are paced by the weather. In 2015, an El Niño in the western Pacific Ocean combined with another irregularly recurring climatic phenomenon called the Indian Ocean dipole to make Indonesia’s typically dry summer even drier, Field says. Fires raged from late June until the end of October, burning 2.6 million hectares, an area half the size of Costa Rica. The haze affected countries as far away as Thailand and the Philippines.

Stung by criticism, Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised action. In January 2016, he established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) in Jakarta, which is trying to restore more than 2.6 million hectares of degraded peatlands—two-thirds within corporate concession areas, the rest in government hands—by 2020. The agency blocks drainage canals, often with simple earthen or wooden dams designed in some cases to allow small boats to pass, says BRG head Nazir Foead. It also replants degraded areas with native vegetation and encourages local communities to use the lands in a sustainable way for fishing and planting crops adapted to wetlands, such as sago palm. By the end of 2018, the agency had initiated restoration projects in 366 villages in seven provinces, Foead says.

To remove the incentive to set fires—as well as preserve Indonesia’s remaining rainforests—the government in 2018 decided not to grant new licenses for oil palm plantations, instead focusing on boosting yields from existing sites and lessening their environmental impact. And in August, Indonesia made permanent a temporary moratorium on converting primary forests and peatlands to agricultural use. The government has also promised stricter enforcement of laws that make concession holders responsible for fires in their holdings, regardless of whether they are deliberately set. Penalties can include criminal prosecution.

Because the years since 2015 have been relatively wet, the measures had never really been tested—until this year. The Indian Ocean dipole again gave Indonesia an extremely dry summer, Field says. When that happens, “You can’t expect no fires and haze; the way to look at it is to see if there is improvement,” he explains.

BRG claims there is, and Wijaya agrees. Field inspections found no indications of fires at 65% of the village restoration sites. Between January and 15 September, fires consumed 330,000 hectares, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry—less than 13% the toll of 2015.

But some restored peatlands are still burning, says Bambang Saharjo, a fire forensics expert at IPB University in Bogor, Indonesia, pointing to shortcomings in the restoration program. For one thing, BRG directly manages projects only on nonconcession and village lands; it provides technical advice to oil palm concession holders but can’t guarantee compliance, Saharjo says. He says the agency should monitor groundwater levels in peatlands to check the progress of restoration. Meanwhile, a different agency oversees restoration efforts in logging concessions, further confusing restoration efforts.

Moreover, loopholes limit the effectiveness of both BRG’s efforts and the ban on forest conversion, says Yuyun Harmono, climate justice campaign manager for the Indonesian Forum for Environment in Jakarta, an affiliate of Friends of the Earth. For example, the maps defining where the permanent moratorium applies are incomplete and often revised. And enforcement is lax, Harmono and others say. Indonesian courts found a number of concession holders liable for damages from the 2015 fires, but the government has still not moved to collect payment, he says. “We need to ensure that companies [setting fires] fear law enforcement,” Harmono says.

With reporting by Dyna Rochmyaningsih in Deli Serdang, Indonesia.