Experts have said that Indonesia, which has struggled to curb land and forest fires in the past, might face a new challenge in mitigating fires: the COVID-19 epidemic.
About 1.6 million hectares of land and forest across the country were burned last year, the second-highest in the last five years after the massive 2015 fires that burned roughly 2.6 million ha, according to Environment and Forestry Ministry data.
Peatland ecosystems accounted for 44 percent of the total land burned last year, or 727,972 ha; and within that ecosystem, 54.71 percent of which were protected peatland areas (FLEGs) that were also burned in the fires.
“This shows that our peatland ecosystems are still prone to fires,” Madani Foundation’s geographic information systems (GIS) specialist, Fadli Ahmad Naufal, said in a recent online public discussion.
More than 1 million hectares of land and forests burned last year, or 63 percent, in areas that had never or rarely been burned in the past and not necessarily peatland.
Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) official Myrna Safitri said some peatland restoration projects had yet to be completed, signaling that it might be a factor exacerbating fires in the highly combustible dry peatland last year.
“In 2019, the fires indeed occurred both in relatively new areas and locations that had regularly been burned. But we have not yet finished our intervention projects there [in regular locations],” Myrna told The Jakarta Post.
The interventions include building infrastructure, such as canals and wells, to keep peatland wet. Peatland soil stores a massive amount of carbon. When peatland is cleared and drained for a plantation, it degrades and is highly combustible.
Last year, two of the provinces recording the largest area of burned land were South Sumatra with 336,798 ha and Central Kalimantan with 317,749 ha.
Madani Foundation predicted five provinces would be prone to land and forest fires this year: Central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, Papua, East Kalimantan and South Sumatra.
“These provinces must pay attention to the prevention of land and forest fires this year,” Naufal said.
Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) forestry expert Bambang Hero Saharjo said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic might divert the government's attention away from mitigating forest fires.
Several regions have already entered the dry season and hot spots are flaring up in Riau and Aceh. About 8,253 hectares of land and forests were burned between January and March, with Riau having the largest area burned at 2,765 ha.
The environment ministry’s director for forest and land fire control, Basar Manullang, said the total area burned in 2019 was 37 percent less than in 2015 and that the fires last year were exacerbated by the prolonged dry season.
He said fire control this year would be done alongside the pandemic response and in line with health protocols.
“Prevention and mitigation efforts on the field will still be conducted with authorities applying health protocols requiring officers to wear personal protection equipment, practice physical distancing and avoid crowds,” Basar told the Post.
The government is employing weather modification technology in Riau to reduce fire potential, particularly in drained peatland, and South Sumatra, Jambi and Kalimantan will follow suit.
The Health Ministry’s communicable disease prevention and control director, Wiendra Waworuntu, said earlier that another issue with forest fires during the COVID-19 pandemic were the similar symptoms between the disease and acute respiratory infections (ISPA), which were caused by the smog. She said pollution from the fires could also exacerbate the condition of COVID-19 patients.
“During forest fires, [ISPA] cases usually increase,” she said. “Do not take the situation lightly and do not forget that we are also in the middle of a pandemic.”