Opinion

Indonesia’s fires are
of global concern

The smoke rising from fires in Sumatra can be seen from outer space. Air pollution in Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia has spiked, reaching levels hazardous to human health. Although the fires are of immediate concern at the regional level, they are quite disconcerting at the global scale.

The fires originate in one of Earth’s carbon super-sinks: peat swamps. Hidden underneath Sumatra’s lowland rain forests are thousands of years of partially rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water.

This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia’s peatlands are drained and burned, one of the world’s greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source.

Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between .81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth’s atmosphere. This is comparable to 13-40 percent of the fossil fuels emitted globally that same year, catapulting Indonesia to be ranked the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the US) according to some indices.

Over US$1.4 billion has been invested to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Indonesia. Investors include Norway, Australia, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, South Korea and Japan — as well as private companies such as Merrill Lynch, the Marubeni Corporation and Gazprom. Why are these investments not working in Riau Province, where most of the fires causing the Singapore Haze have occurred?

One strategy being pursued to combat Indonesia’s forest fires and high deforestation rates is a mechanism known as REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Envisioned as a form of “payments for environmental services”, high-emission countries and companies pay rainforest-rich nations and communities to conserve forests, thus “offsetting” carbon emissions in one location through the sequestration of carbon in another.

This strategy is based on the premise that market logic is more effective than government regulations in curbing carbon emissions.

Indonesia now hosts more than 50 international REDD+ carbon-offsetting initiatives that promise potentially billions of dollars worth of investments. But the haze looming over Sumatra confronts REDD+ investors and Indonesia with the contradictions of market-based solutions.

Using NASA’s Active Fire Data and Indonesian Forestry Ministry concession maps of Riau, the World Resources Institute has shown that more than half of last week’s fires were on timber and oil palm concessions.

Ironically, the two corporations holding over half of these concessions are Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas International (which includes Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, Ltd.).

According to a UN-REDD inventory, these two Indonesian conglomerates fund REDD+ initiatives in Riau Province as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. Unfortunately, the emissions associated with this week’s blazes are sure to outweigh the potential offsets of REDD+ activities in Riau Province.

In the coming weeks there will be attempts to pinpoint the source of Sumatra’s peatland fires. Tracking the culprits has proven difficult in years past, as these fires are not isolated events and peat can actually smolder below ground for months or even years before resurfacing into flames.

Accusations already abound against Indonesia’s conglomerates, palm oil companies, smallholder farmers, and migrants squatting on concessions. Some of the accused are trying to increase profit margins, while others are struggling to make a daily living. But they all share the same market logic that underlies the REDD+ initiatives.

Some people will interpret these fires as an example of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The rational individual (e.g. the Sumatran farmer or Indonesian corporation) will make ever-increasing demands on natural resources until the expected costs of his or her actions equal the anticipated benefits.

Prioritizing personal interests, individuals sharing the commons (e.g. Indonesia) ignore the impacts of their actions on others (e.g. Singapore). In the end, everyone suffers.

But Hardin’s thesis is an over-simplification of reality. Decades of research have shown that societies repeatedly overcome the risk of such tragedies — finding ways to communicate, collaborate and sustainably manage their natural resources.

The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom recognized that the “Global Commons” presents humanity with a new challenge. Earth’s atmosphere is a case in point.

Can we come together as nations, corporations, organizations, and individuals to build an atmospheric ethic?

Wendy Miles researches the political ecology of REDD+ in Indonesia’s peatlands.  Micah Fisher has long worked and lived in Indonesia. Both Miles and Fisher are PhD students at the University of Hawaii’s geography department. This article was first published in Mongabay.org

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