Extreme haze caused by forest and bush fires throughout Sumatra and Kalimantan has been a perpetual problem affecting the quality of life and economy of local residents and neighboring countries.
As this year's dry season approaches, the fires are just starting to pick up, especially in the fire-prone province of Riau in Sumatra, but they are already threatening some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in the country - protected forests and peatlands.
According to NASA's Active Fire Data on the Global Forest Watch Fires (GFW Fires) platform, half of the fire alerts in Riau are occurring in protected areas or those where new development is prohibited under Indonesia's national forest moratorium.
And an alarming 38 percent of Riau's fires are burning on carbon-rich peatlands, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and fueling global climate change.
During 2013-2014, fires in Indonesia brought about a haze crisis in Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore, sparking a call for greater accountability from companies and the Indonesia government and resulting in Indonesia signing the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. With the dry season just starting in Sumatra, we are just beginning to see fire alerts increase. The World Resources Institute (WRI) will watch the situation closely over the coming months to see whether Indonesia's commitment to reducing fires and haze pollution will be met.
As was the case last year, the greatest concentration of fire alerts is in Riau, which is among the top producers of palm oil and timber in Indonesia, and has one of the highest rates of deforestation.
In Riau, fire has long been used as a fast and inexpensive way to clear land and prepare it for planting. Research conducted by David Gaveau of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicated that determining the exact cause of the fires is complex, as they often occur outside of concession boundaries or in concession areas operated by smallholder farmers.
A large number of fire alerts are concentrated in Riau's Tesso Nilo National Park, which has been significantly damaged by illegal encroachment in recent years. The approximately 83,000-hectare park lost more than half of its tree cover from 2001-2013, according to GFW data. The park is a habitat for critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers.
In the past week, 69 hotspots were detected in Tesso Nilo, of which seven were likely to be associated with forest clearing. Other active fires that did not meet the high confidence fire criteria are still likely to be fires, but are more likely associated with burning fields/grass or other conditions that result in lower-temperature fires. While we have yet to see a major spike in fire alerts in Riau, where the alerts are located thus far reveals regulatory and enforcement weaknesses.
As part of the national forest moratorium, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono prohibited the issuance of new development licenses in key forest areas, a commitment extended this year by current President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. Despite the ban, the vast area of protected and moratorium forest is a de facto no-man's land. The absence or inadequateness of the government's capacity to monitor and protect the landscape resulted in many encroachments and illegal occupation that eventually increase the risk of forest degradation and fires.
Plus, the moratorium has known loopholes, such as allowing for the clearing of moratorium areas for food and energy crop development.
Inadequate oversight of protected areas is also a pervasive problem in Indonesia and has been particularly devastating to Tesso Nilo National Park. The government's ambitious overhaul of the forest management system by setting up local forest management units (KPH) is one step in the right direction, but is not likely to have a significant impact without more capacity and resources to prevent such massive encroachment.
A prerequisite for good land-use management is an up-to-date, accurate and consistent geospatial information system; and unfortunately, Indonesia still lacks one.
Indonesia has launched an initiative to remedy this - the widely touted One Map initiative. To have a unified map that is up-to-date, accurate and agreed to by all key stakeholders is one tremendously difficult task in a country where concessions as large as tens of thousands of hectares are allocated based on a hand-drawn map.
One Map is not the goal, but more of a means to have a common "language" between conflicting and competing forest stakeholders and to employ data-driven, land-use policy making.
It is imperative for the government to accelerate and scale up the One Map process if Indonesia wants to gradually improve its land-use management and achieve more sustainable development.
Responsive action from the Environment and Forestry Ministry as well as the National Disaster Management Agency is needed to curb the already increasing number of fire hotspots.
But in the longer term, what is really needed is better, more strategic forest management. That means strengthening enforcement in protected areas, closing loopholes and accelerating the One Map process.
The writer is the director of World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia. The article was written with additional reports by WRI experts Lisa Johnston, Susan Minnemeyer and Nigel Sizer.