Heads of state from across Southeast Asia are gathering this week in Brunei Darussalam for the 23rd Annual ASEAN Summit. High on the agenda are actions to stop a repeat of the June fires and haze crisis that caused a public health emergency, harmed businesses and destroyed forests.
Although four months have passed since the burning peaked, millions of people in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia harbor painful memories of the record-breaking smog that closed schools and airports while sending tourists fleeing. ASEAN leaders now have a chance to make sure this does not happen again.
Up for discussion at the Summit is whether to make forest concession data public, a move toward greater transparency and good governance that many in the region support. At a meeting in July, ministers discussed sharing concession data regionally between governments, but not with the public.
Although this is an important step toward transparency, it represents a missed opportunity. Publicly available concession data would enable improved coordination between governments and local agencies, and support for contract compliance between commodity producers and their corporate customers, as well as enable independent monitoring by researchers and civil society.
New research shows that the June fires in Riau burned more than 1,500 square kilometers — an area more than twice the size of Singapore — and left behind massive burn scars resulting in significant damage to forests and communities. This was a large-scale, acute environmental and human disaster.
Using high-resolution RapidEye satellite imagery, The World Resources Institute (WRI) has now completed a detailed assessment of the extent and precise location of the fires.
Comparison of the location of the blazes with concession maps from the Indonesian Forestry Ministry suggests that the most extensive fires occurred largely on land granted to large companies. These findings require further investigation on the ground since the concession maps are often out of date and inaccurate — another reason all concession data should be released publicly.
Almost three quarters of the fires were set on peatland, resulting in major greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland burning is illegal according to Indonesian law. At least 700 hectares of the highly threatened Tesso Nilo National Park also went up in smoke. The resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the fires will make it harder for Indonesia to achieve its ambitious and important emission reduction target.
All of these results should be sobering for policymakers and highlight the need for decisive, rapid action as well as collaboration to avert a repeat of the June disaster. But historical review suggests that land-clearing fires on this scale are not unusual in Sumatra, having occurred at least three times in the last 10 years.
Given these findings, as well as other recent research by groups including the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the ASEAN Summit should consider the following suggestions.
First, the leaders should not be sidetracked with discussions about creating new monitoring systems and centers, which they have been considering. While better fire monitoring is useful, NASA’s existing service already provides enough information for managers, decision makers and law enforcement officers to take action.
In fact, WRI’s analysis found that fire alerts from NASA, updated daily, were accurate in identifying actual fires 97 percent of the time. Discussion should focus instead on taking action to prevent further fires and holding those responsible for the larger fires accountable in Indonesia and elsewhere where impacts were felt.
Second, the precise locations and scale of some of the fires are now known. These sites should be prioritized for further investigation. Media reports suggest that to date Indonesian authorities have largely focused arrests on smaller companies and local farmers, though the precise details are not clear. WRI’s new analysis suggests that larger companies may also share responsibility. Review of accurate concession maps — including the zoning inside of each concession — is urgently needed to help to determine accountability.
And finally, detection of illegal acts of burning and rapid response to fires would be much easier if accurate, up-to-date concession maps were publicly available. In July, ASEAN ministers were unable to agree to this basic step. It is now up to the heads of state to consider this measure again, which has been recommended by many independent experts and strongly pushed by the government of Singapore.
Agreement on public release of accurate concession data would be an easy win for the Brunei meeting. Keeping such information secret will cast serious doubt on the commitment of the governments to tackle the fires.
The outcomes of the ASEAN Summit this week will be a litmus test of governmental resolve to reduce the risk of future fires. With memories of the June fires still fresh, the heads of state have the opportunity to act in the face of existing challenges to adopt measures that will make a marked contribution to protecting their citizens from future disasters. Failure to act will be equally visible to all.
The writers are scientists with the World Resources Institute’s forests team