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Climate change: Why Indonesia's forests are crucial to emission curbs

Negotiators in Paris say it's essential to safeguard tropical forests in order to curb carbon emissions. Indonesia ranks among the top five emitters because of its errant forestry practices.

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    This once lush peatland near Pekanbaru was decimated earlier this year by a fire, one of more than 50,000 that erupted across Indonesia.
    Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
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Thirty miles southeast of this cluttered city, past roadside fruit vendors and neatly planted rows of oil palm and acacia trees, lies a barren patch of land in an otherwise dense swath of peat swamp forest.

A no-smoking sign at the end of the muddy access road reads like a cruel joke. The fire that ravaged this once lush landscape left little more than charred stumps and branches; there’s barely anything left to burn.

Willy Redo, an on-site supervisor for an Indonesian palm oil company that claims the land, blames the wind for the fire. He says sparks from a nearby blaze caused the 2,500-acre plot to erupt into flames.  

Abdul Ronny, a research assistant at Riau University’s Center for Disaster Studies, isn’t convinced. “This was done by design,” he says, as he surveys the aftermath.

Indonesian officials aren’t convinced, either. In September, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry ordered the company, Langgam Inti Hibrindo, to suspend its operations while authorities look into allegations of illegal burning. Hundreds of other companies are also under investigation for similar practices. 

Deforestation accounts for 11 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climatologists warn that it will be impossible to slow the Earth’s rising temperature without addressing it, which is why negotiators from nearly 200 nations meeting this week in Paris are expected for the first time to formally recognize deforestation’s contribution to climate change.

As the world’s biggest culprit of deforestation, Indonesia offers a cautionary tale. Despite its modest industrial output, it's among the world's top five carbon emitters. Widespread slashing and burning across the country has contributed to a heightened sense of urgency for achieving a binding international agreement to curb global warming.

"As a country with one of the largest forest areas acting as the lung of the world, Indonesia is here today as part of the solution," Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Monday at the Paris talks.

From issuing a moratorium on new developments in peatland to announcing the creation of a peat restoration agency, Mr. Widodo appears eager to overhaul the way his country manages its land. Indonesia has promised to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030 – and that means taking tougher action on forestry companies. 

All told this year, Indonesian authorities have launched investigations into more than 300 plantation companies and revoked the licenses held by three. 

“Indonesia had more emissions over the last three months because of the fires than Germany has had in the entire year,” says Fred Stolle, a forestry and land-use specialist at the World Resource Institute. “It clearly gives a warning to all of us that we need to take this issue seriously.”

Indonesia on fire

Lisa Curran, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in California, remembers all too well Indonesia’s last major fires in 1997, when she was conducting fieldwork in the Borneo rain forest. The haze blanketed the area. “It was like smoking 60 cigarettes a day,” she says. 

This year could be even worse. More than 50,000 fires have destroyed over 8,000 square miles of forests and other land in Indonesia since July. The fires have been an annual problem since the mid-1990s, but this year’s El Niño has created unusually dry weather that has made them the strongest they’ve been in nearly two decades. Economic losses caused by the fires are expected to exceed $14 billion.

Monsoon rains in late October provided Indonesia – and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia – with a much-needed reprieve from choking haze. Yet Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar warned last month that the haze could return as early as February. On Tuesday, she said authorities are cracking down on those responsible for illegally setting fires.

Dr. Curran says increased law enforcement will help in the short term, but she sees no quick fix to solving the problem. At the moment, palm oil and paper pulp companies have little economic incentive to quit setting fire to forests. It’s the cheapest and fastest way to clear land, and culpability is hard to prove. Unclear land ownership only adds to the government’s challenge.

“Nothing will change as long as there are still perverse incentives and entrenched ways of doing business,” Curran says.

'Never-ending problem'

Life has returned to normal in Pekanbaru now that the fires have subsided. Schools have reopened after closing for two months, and the airport is once again fully operational. But residents here know that the clear skies are unlikely to last.

“We don’t have tsunamis or volcanoes to worry about like much of Indonesia. The only disaster that happens here is the haze,” says Nurchaina, a spokeswoman for Eka Hospital. “It’s a never-ending problem.”

Ms. Nurchaina, who like many Indonesians uses a single name, says the hospital was overcrowded at the peak of the fires in August and September with patients suffering from respiratory problems. 

Air purifiers were kept running 24 hours a day and wet towels were placed under doors to keep out the toxic air. Hospital staff handed out free masks to local residents and set up five temporary clinics in surrounding villages.

Despite their best efforts, the magnitude of the disaster overwhelmed medical workers in Indonesia. More than a half-million people were sickened in the six most affected provinces. Twenty-one people died.

In early October, Widodo cut short his first trip to the United States to return to Indonesia to deal with the raging fires. It was a symbolic gesture that Louis Verchot, director of environment research at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, hopes he will follow with much-needed reforms.

“He’s giving some of the right signals,” Mr. Verchot says. “Whether he has the ability to address the root causes of these fires has yet to be seen.”

Back at the fire-ravaged clearing, the blackened earth is beginning to show signs of life. Small shrubs have begun to sprout among the sooty remains of trees. While oil palm seedlings could soon take their place, for now there is nothing to stop the forest from reclaiming what it lost. 

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