The Mega-Rice Project (MRP) — the conversion of 10,000 square km of peat forest into rice paddies — that was adopted in Indonesia in 1997, was a mega-failure. It produced hardly any rice because the peaty soil lacks the requisite minerals. Instead of spurring farming, the draining of the waterlogged forest with a 6,000km network of canals fuelled fire…. It was the biggest environmental disaster in Indonesia’s history. Burning peat in 1997 on Kalimantan and the nearby island of Sumatra generated the equivalent of 13-40% of the average annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The MRP was abandoned in 1999 but its legacy endures in the infernos that have ravaged Kalimantan almost every year since.
As work begins in 2020 on the new plantation, is history poised to repeat itself? The government says it has learned from the past. Nazir Foead of the Peatland Restoration Agency says that tractors will steer clear of what remains of Central Kalimantan’s pristine peatlands…but the rest is covered in “shallow peat”, no more than 50cm deep, and so can be cultivated without cataclysm, he says. Environmentalists are not convinced… Smouldering swamps belch vast amounts of carbon. In 2019, the fires that swept Indonesia emitted 22% more carbon than the conflagration in the Amazon rainforest did.
But the government argues it must go ahead with the plantation, and quickly, in case covid-19 brings about food shortages… For decades the political elites “have been chasing this ideal of food self-sufficiency”, says Jenny Goldstein of Cornell University. Prabowo Subianto, the defence minister, is one of its greatest champions.
Excerpts from For Peat’s Sake: Indonesia’s Environment, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020
BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa. It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past. More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality. But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.
In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas. The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade. Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.
The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010. There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin. For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest. “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”
The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century. The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined. Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad. Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.
Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC. According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years. In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.
Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different. Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest. Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities. “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.
Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC
In 2015 a dry spell caused by the El Niño weather pattern made Indonesia’s forest fires especially severe. Smoke settled over Singapore for months and even reached Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. At least 2m hectares of forest were burned. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands sickened. For much of October 2015 greenhouse gases released by those fires exceeded the emissions of the entire American economy. The losses over five months of fires amounted to around 2% of the country’s GDP…[The event has labeled the 2015 Southeast Asian haze]
Between 2001 and 2014, Indonesia lost 18.5m hectares of tree cover—an area more than twice the size of Ireland. In 2014 Indonesia overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest deforester.
One of the reasons for those forest fires is economic. The country produces well over half the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in cooking and cosmetics, as a food additive and as a biofuel. It accounts for around 4.5% of Indonesia’s GDP, and demand is still rising. To meet it, Indonesian farmers set fires to clear forest and make way for new plantations. Often these forests grow on peatlands, which store carbon from decayed organic matter; in tropical regions these hold up to ten times as much carbon as surface soil. Draining peatlands releases all of that carbon. The peat also becomes a fuel, so it is not just felled trees that are burning but the ground itself.
But politics also plays a part. … The president declared a moratorium on peatland-development licences and called for peat forests to be restored, even as his agriculture minister pointed out that burned peatland can be used for corn and soyabean planting….
Civil-society groups have had some success. At least 188 Indonesian palm-oil companies have made some sort of sustainability pledge, including five large multinational firms that in 2014 signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which commits them to avoiding deforestation and planting oil palms on peatland. Together those five firms account for 80% of Indonesia’s palm-oil exports.All the same, deforestation continues. Perversely, it may even have increased temporarily, as companies cleared as much land as they could before the agreement took effect. Besides, opaque supply chains allow companies to buy palm oil from suppliers not bound by IPOP.
Forests: A world on fire, Economist Special Report on Indonesia, Feb. 27, 2016