Palm plantations the usual suspects as wildfire engulfs Sumatra peatlands

Fires have swept through large swaths of peatland forest in the western part of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island since the start of the year, an area that usually sees much smaller, controlled fires.

Palm_Hand_Indonesia
A worker shows oil palm fruits in his hands in Kapuas Hulu, Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Fires in areas of carbon-intense peatland forest on the island of Sumatra appear to have been set in and around oil palm plantation concessions and could signal the start of another season of forest-razing burns in Indonesia.

The fires burned 6,168 hectares (15,241 acres) of peatlands — an area 18 times the size of New York City’s Central Park — in the district of Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra province, between Jan. 28 and April 23, according to satellite data from forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas. Most of the burning occurred between March 24 and April 20.

While the island of Sumatra is a hotspot for fires in Indonesia, with provinces like South Sumatra, Riau and Jambi routinely having some of the largest fires in the country — set deliberately to clear land ahead of planting — West Sumatra has historically had fewer and smaller fires.

The area burned so far this year is already triple the total from the particularly intense fire season of 2019, when 2,133 hectares (5,271 acres) of land was torched in West Sumatra, out of a total of 1.65 million hectares (4.08 million acres) nationwide, according to official data.

Also in 2019, only 858 hectares (2,120 acres) of the burned land in West Sumatra was peatland. This time around, the entire burned area is peatland, all of it in the single district of Pesisir Selatan, prompting environmental activists to call for an investigation.

The most important thing is that all officials have to side with nature and forests. If there’s a verdict on forest fires, immediately execute it.

Dedi Mulyadi, deputy chair, parliamentary committee on environmental issues

Wengky Purwanto, the head of the West Sumatra chapter of Walhi, Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO, said the extent of the burning is unusual because fires in West Sumatra are typically small and contained, set by farmers using traditional methods of controlled burns.

“[The government should] look into who’s behind the fires because if the fires were set by farmers or local people, then the size of the fires would be less than a hectare,” Wengky told Mongabay. “If the fires are larger than 3 hectares in size, then it’s already too big.”

He added farmers in West Sumatra usually take precautionary measures to prevent fires from spreading to other areas.

“The farmers usually work together to contain the fires so that they don’t spread wildly because their plots are next to each other,” he said. “So if the fires have already burned thousands of hectares, it’s important for us to investigate it.”

Wengky said Walhi’s own monitoring had so far only detected small pockets of fires in the province this year, consistent with those set by small farmers.

On March 29, local police detected two separate fire spots, one on vacant land and the other on oil palm plantations owned by local farmers. Police and firefighters responded immediately to put out the fires, but the nature of peat fires means burning may still be taking place underground, deep in the peat layer, even if the flames above ground have been extinguished.

“The fires have started to die but not completely because peatlands have to be continuously cooled off with water so that the flames don’t flare up again,” Gusmanto, a local police official, told local media.

David Gaveau, founder of technology consultancy TheTreeMap, which developed Nusantara Atlas, said the area of burning is surrounded by large industrial oil palm plantations.

“These fires are potentially connected to palm oil production, and there are four mills around it, some connected to international buyers,” he told Mongabay.

The four palm oil processing mills are the Tapan plant, owned by the company Kemilau Permata Sawit, and the Sodetan, Silaut and Anak Angkat mills, all owned by Incasi Raya.

Besides operating the three mills, Incasi Raya also owns 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of oil palm plantations in Pesisir Selatan. In 2018, U.S.-based campaign group Mighty Earth found forest and peat clearance in a concession held by an Incasi Raya subsidiary, PT Sumatera Jaya Agro Lestari (SJAL), in West Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

Mighty Earth filed a grievance report with Singapore-based Musim Mas, which owns one of the largest palm oil refinery networks in the world and buys palm oil from Incasi Raya and SJAL. Musim Mas reported that land development at SJAL’s concession had stopped since March 2019.

Companies that manage concessions where fires occur often blame the burning on small farmers setting fires on neighbouring plots and allowing them to spread. While this may be true in some cases, companies can benefit by allowing the fires to spread across their concessions — essentially letting them clear their land for planting while giving them plausible deniability with regard to setting the fires, Wengky said. It also gives them a way to clear their land at virtually no cost.

“We don’t have the evidence yet but maybe [the current fires] are by design from naughty businesspeople,” Wengky said.

The burning could also open up opportunities for companies to expand their plantations, he added. He noted that some plantations in West Sumatra are due for replanting, as their oil palms have aged and their permits are nearing expiration.

As a result, some companies are in the process of applying to get their permits renewed so they can start replanting, Wengky said. By having the areas surrounding their plantations burned, these companies could not only try to get their permits renewed, but also have their concessions expanded.

That’s because when forest areas are burned, they’re considered degraded under Indonesian zoning regulations. While a forest area is legally off-limits to plantation activity, a degraded area can be rezoned for cultivation, including for oil palms.

“The rezoning of areas from forest areas into [cultivation] areas is quite vast in West Sumatra,” Wengky said. “And forests can especially be rezoned once they’re degraded and get palm oil permits issued there. That’s very possible.”

Gaveau noted that the burned areas in Pesisir Selatan are located inside forest areas that are designated to be rezoned in the future. The burned land is also protected under the government’s primary forest and peat moratorium policy, he added.

This indicates that the burned plantations are illegal ones — all the more reason why the government should investigate the fires, Gaveau said. (Gaveau was deported from Indonesia in 2020 after publishing preliminary findings that showed the total area burned in the 2019 fires was nearly double what the government claimed.)

Dedi Mulyadi, a lawmaker who serves as deputy chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing environmental issues, said the government should focus on cracking down on companies rather than on small farmers.

“Because the perpetrators of forest fires [use the burning to] clear lands, and that’s mostly done by companies,” he told Mongabay.

Since the 2015 fires, rated among the worst man-made disasters in Indonesian history, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been ramping up its law enforcement efforts by suing companies with burned concessions.

As of the end of 2021, the ministry had filed lawsuits against 28 companies and won judgments from the courts totalling 19.8 trillion rupiah ($1.37 billion). However, the companies have only paid out 2.5 per cent of that amount to date.

Dedi called on the courts to immediately enforce the payment of the fines.

“The most important thing is that all officials have to side with nature and forests,” he said. “If there’s a verdict [on forest fires], immediately execute it.”

Wengky said the worst might be yet to come, as extreme dry weather could become more common and last longer due to climate change.

“The dry season nowadays is not the same as in the past, the severity is different,” he said.

According to Indonesia’s meteorological agency, the BMKG, this year’s dry season will peak in August and isn’t expected to be particularly intense, unlike in previous years when an El Niño system amplified the impacts of the dry season.

Basar Manullang, director of fire mitigation at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told local media the government would focus its efforts on preventing and extinguish fires in regions that are rich in peatlands, as these landscapes are especially prone to massive fires in the dry season.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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