Director General Peter Holmgren joins Indonesian government in dialogue on solutions to fire and haze

A high-level policy dialogue on ‘Finding and Mainstreaming Long-Term Solutions to Fire and Haze in Indonesia’  brought together key government officials, leading representatives of civil society, the private sector, and national media, with the aim of addressing the underlying causes and drivers of fire – a complex mix of economic, political, social and environmental factors.

Following are the opening remarks by CIFOR’s Director General, Peter Holmgren, at the dialogue, held at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Jakarta on 26 August 2015.

Again, I read in the news this morning about closed schools in Riau, dangerous levels of pollutants, children breathing through masks, flights being cancelled because of low visibility in the haze and economic losses. Not to mention the political fallout with neighboring countries, as well as the impact on climate.

I recognize this place. We’ve been here before. We seem to be walking in circles.

How is it that a problem that is so obvious and unwanted is taking so long to address? We clearly want to make things right, but in our attempts – are we doing the right things?

How can we make clear to ourselves what the problem really is about and make sure that we are not fooling ourselves when we look for solutions?

Some good news is that we have new research results to build on. CIFOR, ICRAF and others moved on from relying on hotspot indications from satellites and approximate maps, and instead studied the issues from the ground up. We have also moved to study fire and haze issues from a broader, cross-sectoral landscape perspective which provides us with more in-depth explanations that we expect will help solutions to emerge.

Turning to solutions, I have three brief thoughts to offer.

The first is common sense. Let us be clear that it is much much more effective to prevent fires to happen in the first place, than to try and extinguish them when the burning has started. So solutions must primarily target fire prevention.

Then consider another newspaper line the other day – the fire and haze problems were filed under the heading of “forestry”.

This is clearly a misconception that permeates the debate. Fire, just like deforestation, happens because of agriculture. Fire is used as a cost-effective tool both to expand agriculture and in agriculture practices. True, it is often forests, or at least remnants of forests, that burn. But the fires are agriculture fires. The solutions must therefore address agriculture, not forestry. Solutions must go in the direction that agriculture without fire and avoiding development on peatlands is what we want – even if the immediate cost of land preparation may be a little higher. To achieve such a change of practices is, I believe, as much about perceptions, public opinion and moral obligation, as it is about the hard core economics.

My second thought is therefore that we must be much more proactive to move information and understanding of fire use in agriculture and the dire consequences it often has. This must become a part of the public mind – from the investors in palm oil plantations, to local land development entrepreneurs, to the school children breathing the haze. We could potentially achieve results more rapidly through honest propaganda, than through bureaucratic reforms (although these are also necessary).

Looking at the matter from another angle, we see a lot of investments in agriculture development. Money is flowing into land clearing and establishment of plantations – this is not a bad thing if it is done right! We also find that many times these investments are relatively small-scale operations. They are often opportunistic and generally illegal activities operating in situations where regulation and enforcement are fairly unclear. They happen because the risks for the investors are very low when compared with the economic returns.

My third thought is how we can increase the risk for the investors? Clearly, if the probability to be held accountable was higher, the risk assessment would look quite different to the investors. My sense is that through efficient and targeted law enforcement, the risk vs. return equation could change rather quickly. Again, longer-term reforms on land tenure and spatial planning are also needed, but we should perhaps not underestimate the value of punishments to achieve results more quickly.

So to put it bluntly, in the interest of the health of our children, more propaganda and more prosecution may be ways to go. As a bonus, we could reduce climate impacts, ensure healthy economic growth and improve relations with neighbors.

‘Finding and Mainstreaming Long-Term Solutions for Fire and Haze in Indonesia’ was convened by CIFOR in collaboration with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment & Forestry, UK Embassy to Indonesia,UNODC and UNORCID and was a component of CIFOR’s project, ‘The Political Economy Study of Fire and Haze in Indonesia’, funded by the UK Department for International Development.

Read a blog about the situation in Indonesia on Forests News