Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a peatland forest in Payung Sekaki regency in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Sumatra, on August 2, 2019. Photo: AFP / Wahyudi

As Indonesia’s fire season is set to start in April, President Joko Widodo has gone on the offensive, lambasting senior officials and demanding accountability for the 2019 land and forest fires that ravaged his country.

More than 16,000 square kilometers burned down last year in Indonesia, costing the nation US$5.2 billion in economic damage and in effect shaving 0.5% from its GDP growth. In addition, the fires caused respiratory problems for more than 900,000 people, wreaked immense damage to the flora and fauna of affected areas, and released more than 708 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

While Widodo’s renewed rhetorical drive is welcome, the president should also address the fundamental causes behind the recurrent forest fires in Indonesia: the country’s weak peatlands-restoration policy. Indeed, in contrast to Widodo’s public musings, the fault lies not with incompetent officials but with the country’s environmental policies that have allowed for the significant exploitation of the very peatlands that would otherwise be crucial to preventing forest fires. 

Indonesia boasts 36% of the world’s share of carbon-rich tropical peatlands. Once deemed not arable enough, increasing demand for monoculture plantation farming has led corporations to clear large swaths of peatlands – often using unsafe land-clearing methods that have inevitably resulted in forest fires. Since tropical peat can contain more than 10 times the amount of carbon of regular soil, when it dries it becomes a thick mass that can continue burning for months after the flames have been put out. As a result, these peatland plantations are especially vulnerable and prone to long-lasting fires. 

But instead of increasing peatlands’ protection, Jakarta has taken steps to reduce restrictions, causing widespread alarm among the environmental community. Previous regulations passed in the wake of the 2015 fires had required companies who hold land containing peat layers 3 meters or deeper to restore and conserve those areas.

New regulations enacted in 2019 by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry have limited areas that need to be protected to “peat domes,” or landscapes with peat so thick that the center is topographically higher than its edges. The areas beyond these “domes” are now open to exploitation. 

Collusion with industry champions?

One of the biggest winners from this change of government heart is the paper industry, so much so that analysts even speculated the regulation was cooked up in part by the very plantation and pulpwood companies that own much of the peatland. Dominated by Singapore’s APRIL Group and Indonesia’s Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) Group, these two companies were found to have drained up to 2 million hectares of peatlands for monoculture plantations of palm oil and acacia trees which the paper industry uses to make pulpwood

In addition to the economic and environmental costs of the fires, APP has also accumulated a huge social debt due to its activities in almost all of its pulpwood concessions, many in South Sumatra province. APP has been accused of violating farmers’ rights, land grabbing, violent evictions of local communities and under-compensating landowners.

Bowing under the pressure of environmental activists, APP launched a Forest Conservation Policy in 2013 to make up for its environmental and social damages in Indonesia. Perhaps to silence one of its staunchest critics, APP attempted to cooperate with Greenpeace by bringing the group in as an adviser in its new forest-conservation efforts.

But soon enough, evidence surfaced of APP-affiliated companies clearing thousands of hectares of forest and protected ramin trees being harvested in APP-run mills. As a result, Greenpeace resolutely concluded that the company was not serious about its conservation efforts and terminated their relationship in 2018. 

These practices seem to have continued unabated since. A January 20 report from a coalition of nine Indonesian non-governmental organizations points out that both APP and APRIL are failing to live up to their promises to replant destroyed peatland and stop setting new fires. In spite of international campaigns, and cases filed by farmers’ unions and several companies severing contracts with APP, no strict sanctions have been imposed on them since 2015 by President Widodo’s government. 

APP: a cog in a giant destructive network

The flagrant flouting of environmental protections can be traced to APP’s powerful owners, the Sino-Indonesian Widjaja family, who have been able to maintain a degree of influence over Indonesia’s politics. APP is only a cog in the family’s business empire, which stretches from the Sinar Mas palm-oil conglomerate in Indonesia to the Paper Excellence Group in Canada.

There’s also evidence that the family’s lobbying prowess isn’t limited to Indonesia. According to a recent Reuters report, Jackson Widjaja, heir to the Widjaja empire and president of Paper Excellence, enlisted the help of government officials in the United States to block a Brazilian meatpacking company’s plan to list itself in the US. This was in response to a deal gone awry between Paper Excellence and the Brazilian company. 

With the immense influence that the family retains both internationally and in Jakarta, it is unclear to what extent Widodo’s admonishments will translate into concrete actions. As fires are set to rage throughout the archipelago this year, the government should resist the strong-arming of industrial champions and put the health of its citizens and the environment first. 

Frederick Kuo

Frederick Kuo is a published San Francisco-based writer, UCLA graduate and owner of local real estate brokerage Amber Rock Properties. His writings focus on economics and geopolitics within a social and historical context.