Writing in Conservation Biology, Ryan Chisholm and others have reiterated the need for serious long-term solutions to try and prevent a recurrence of the fires seen in 2015. Although the final estimate for the cost of the fires has yet to be calculated, if they are of a similar magnitude to those in 1997 it is likely to exceed $16 billion. However, progress is likely to be slow and Chisholm et al have commented:
“But implementation of reforms will be hampered by Indonesia’s decentralized government, opaque legal infrastructure, and weak law enforcement. Large-scale burning is already illegal in Indonesia.”
As such, the recent announcement by President Joko Widodo that a new peat restoration agency will be created is definitely a welcome one. As to who is responsible for starting the fires, the causal chain is not always straightforward. In an article for the Malaysian Insider, Erik Meijaard recently wrote that one of main causes of fires was not only large palm-oil plantations, but small-scale farmers. Indeed, while large companies must accept some of the responsibility and there have even been arrests of several executives, it is estimated that around 60% of fires are started by local smallholders. Sara Thornton of Leicester University, who was in the field in 2015, also observed that many fires were set by local people, not just by large companies. In a comment written to the UK-TPWG she said:
“Most of the smouldering land that I have seen around Palangkaraya was set alight by small-scale farmers and fishermen in order to plant crops and provide access to rivers for fishing, amongst other reasons…We need to work with local communities to understand the reasons they use fire in order to collaborate with them to find solutions that are locally and culturally appropriate for them.”
But as Chisholm et al. note, smaller producers often rely on larger companies for access to international markets, and so the reasons why people set fires are not always solely local in origin.
The incorporation of REDD+ into the COP21 Paris agreement, a mechanism for paying for forest preservation, is historic and offers some hope. The first round of grants have also recently been provided by the $10 billion Green Climate Fund, some of which has already been assigned to help preserve peatlands. However, efforts and promises have been made at several points in the past, and international agreements to try and limit transboundary haze already existed prior to 2015. Payments through schemes such as REDD+ are also not yet sufficient to exceed the income from land converted to agriculture. We wish all those working for the newly created peat restoration agency the very best of luck in their crucial task.