Yesterday, I woke up and stepped out of my 19th-floor apartment, on the way to church. Passing the light well, its orientation one that scoops in sea breezes, the first thing I smelled was that familiar odour of distant fires. I realise now that it was probably blowing in from Sumatra’s Jambi Province, Desa Rimau Baku Tuo, Kecamatan Sadu, Kabupaten Tanjung Jabung Timur, to be precise. Checking the wind direction this seemed most likely.
Desa Rimau Baku Tuo. This area borders the Berbak National Park. Haphazard, clearing and the use of fire endanger national park forest margins.
Why burning now
It’s the dry season in Jambi so it’s the ideal time to burn off areas of peatland forest. Fire is used to clear land in preparation for development of palm oil or wood pulp plantations. Many corporations in the palm oil and wood pulp industries regard the forest land as unproductive and ripe for ‘development’.
Peatland clearing moratorium
In December 2016, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo introduced a blanket ban prohibiting the draining and clearing peatland. The ban also applied to concessions already licensed to plantation companies.
The initiative was widely hailed as a step forward and a practical strategy for dealing with the disastrous fires plaguing Jambi and neighbouring provinces and the massive forest loss.
The fallacy of development
This so-called development imposes high costs. Present practices lead to:
- destruction of forest ecosystems;
- deaths of endangered animals;
- dispossession of Indigenous peoples like the Orang Rimba;
- the release vast amounts of carbon from carbon-rich peatland soils;
- pollution of drainage systems with pesticides; and,
- peatland shrinkage on cleared land facilitating potential ingress of seawater in coastal and estuarine settings.
In 2015 such was the scale of the problem that the fires caused massive air pollution, transboundary smoke haze, disruptions to air traffic, numerous respiratory and pulmonary health issues and made a major contribution to global warming.
Any attempt to calculate the externalities involved with this so-called development is difficult, but the scale of the ecological, human and planetary costs is significant.
While a country like Indonesia benefits from the export of palm oil, voices within are also expressing concern about the way the externalities might be approached.
There is a surprising lack of freely available research findings on the questions of externalities in the palm oil industry. ‘Palm oil the hidden costs‘ by Rachel Goehring University of Nebraska – Lincoln, (firstname.lastname@example.org) makes an effort to explore some of the externalities. Clearly, more work is required.
Tragically, around 90% of the fires in Jambi are still deliberately lite and the burning of forest land is often done at night to avoid surveillance. Once started they spread quickly.
A footnote from Prayoto Tonoto
The function of peat land as the global climate regulator has been threatened by human activities through deforestation and plantation, including the peatlands in Jambi. Berbak National Park is covered by 110,000 hectares of peatlands. Most of the land changes is detected in August-October represent the temporal complexity affected by fires. Under the regulation, the farmer is allowed to use fire for land preparation under 2 hectares. However, fire utilization is prohibited for land preparation in concessionaries. The Result showed fire tend to occur in peatland every year. Land covers before fire occurrence mostly were bush and disturbed secondary forest. On average, 21% was converted into forest plantation and 27% was converted into palm oil plantation, the rest areas were community land.
Prayoto’s complete work is available at