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Can REDD save Indonesia’s peatlands from burning?

The Straits Times reports that the bill for this year’s fires in Indonesia could be as high as US$33 billion, citing preliminary estimates by President Joko Widodo’s administration.

The economic impacts are serious. The climatic, social and environmental impacts are worse. Greenpeace notes that Indonesia’s fires this year will release more carbon to the atmosphere than the United Kingdom.

The last time Indonesia’s fires were so bad was in 1997-1998. One report estimates that Indonesia lost US$20.1 billion because of the fires then, and between 0.81 and 2.57 gigatonnes of carbon emissions were released. The UK emitted 0.14 gigatonnes of carbon last year (0.52 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide).

Greenpeace has produced a shocking video of drone footage of this year’s fires:

Because of the fires schools have been closed, flights delayed, sports events cancelled. National parks are burning. About 30% of the fire hotspots are in areas supposed to be protected by the moratorium on new forestry concessions, part of the Norway-Indonesia US$1 billion REDD deal. More than 60% of the hotspots are on peatlands.

Every year, an estimated 110,000 people die in Southeast Asia as a result of landscape fires. This year, because of the severity of the haze, the figure is likely to be higher. Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency reports that 135,000 Indonesians are suffering from respiratory problems.

The Indonesian government has sent nearly 21,000 soldiers to fight the fires.

Indonesia’s big REDD bureaucratic swamp

This week, the World Bank’s Carbon Fund, part of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, is meeting in Brussels. Indonesia was supposed to present its revised ER-PIN (Emissions Reductions Program Idea Note) at the meeting. Indonesia is the only country that has been “provisionally selected into the pipeline” of the Carbon Fund.

Indonesia submitted its ER-PIN in September 2014. Following the 11th meeting of the Carbon Fund in October 2014, Indonesia was supposed to revise its ER-PIN and report to the 12th meeting of the Carbon Fund in April 2015.

In a letter to the FCPF dated 28 September 2015, Dr Henry Bastaman, Director General of Research, Development and Innovative Agency, Ministry of Environment and Forestry of Indonesia, explained that,

However, due to several circumstances such as the restructuring of the Ministry of Forestry and Ministry of Environment become the Ministry of Environment and Forestry had made all the activities be postponed.

He added that “now we are in the process of revising the concept notes (ER-PIN)” and hoped to have it completed by 6 October 2015, in time for the Carbon Fund meeting.

But on 9 October 2015, Bambang Hendroyono, Secretary General of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, wrote again to the FCPF. He explained that the Government of Indonesia “remains fully committed” to participating in the Carbon Fund, and that “we have revisited program area selection” and “come to the conclusion that we will propose East Kalimantan Province as the focus of program accounting area”. However, he continued,

While we had expected to complete these steps in time to allow for submission of a revised ER-PIN in the upcoming 13th Carbon Fund Meeting, we now acknowledge that such a target cannot meaningfully be met.

He requested an extension until 17 December 2015.

So much for Indonesia’s bureaucratic swamp. What does Indonesia’s ER-PIN propose to address the burning peatswamps?

Indonesia’s ER-PIN does not propose solutions to the fires

In the 74 pages of Indonesia’s ER-PIN, the word “fire” is mentioned 20 times. The ERPIN acknowledges that fires are a cause of deforestation and degradation as well as an important source of greenhouse gas emissions. But while the proposals to stop fires might be well meaning, they have little to do with the reality on the ground. For example, the ER-PIN includes a wishlist from Central Kalimantan’s REDD+ Strategy, which includes the following:

  • Provision of support for the sustainable use of peat land
  • Improvement of the hydrological status of peat land by improving water management
  • Support for community based reforestation of degraded forests and peatland
  • Development of alternative livelihood opportunities to communities
  • Prevention and management of forest and peatland fires by actively involving communities in firefighting programs.

Central Kalimantan, the pilot REDD province, is also burning

In September 2015, Channel News Asia reported on the fires in Central Kalimantan. The headline describes the province as “Ground Zero” for haze and fire fighting.

Asked whether he thought the firefighting efforts are sufficient, Adiyasa a 20-year old volunteer fighting the fires replied:

“We feel it’s insufficient. But we must keep up the spirit to fight the fires and rescue Central Kalimantan from the haze despite the many risks and limited facilities.”

In December 2010, as part of the US$1 billion REDD deal with Norway, then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono selected Central Kalimantan as Indonesia’s pilot REDD province.

In September 2012, the Ministry of Forestry approved a revised spatial plan for Central Kalimantan. The spatial plan allocated some of the province’s richest forests for conversion to oil palm plantations.

In December 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency put out a report about palm oil expansion and illegal logging in Central Kalimantan. The report concludes that despite policy development, legal instruments and the REDD+ Agency (which was swallowed up by the new Ministry of Environment and Forestry earlier this year),

The reality is that forests are still wide open for conversion and spatial plans provide a legal basis for companies to destroy them for years to come.

The Letter of Intent for the US$1 billion REDD deal, that Norway and Indonesia signed in May 2010, states:

The purpose of the Partnership is to contribute to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, forest degradation and peatland conversion…

More than five years later, the fires in Indonesia are worse than ever. The fires this year (and in 2013) provide dramatic evidence that Norway’s US$1 billion REDD deal with Indonesia has so far failed to reduce emissions from Indonesia’s forests and peatlands.

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  1. I have suggested to some political friends there that they badger the government to pass a law that any land that is cleared by fire, whether by accident of not, should be banned from planting any crops for 10 years.

  2. All the burning and smoke are just the visible signs of converting the accumulated carbon in the peat to CO2. Peat is made in water-saturated environment where lack of oxygen, low pH and shortage of nutrients prevents biological decomposition of litter. As soon as we drain the peat and even fertilize it, we change the environment to become very conductive for microbiological decomposition, sending the stored carbon in the peat into the atmosphere as CO2. Seen from a climate point of view the difference between burning and microbial decomposition is only in the visibility. A study has shown that lowering the water table one meter results in 92 tons of CO2 emitted per ha. per year. Another study estimates the average emissions from drained peatland in Indonesia to be 60 tons CO2 per ha. per year. Using these figures it can be estimated that one of the big paper and pulp companies having 600.000 ha of its acacia plantations on peatland results in the emission of around 50 mill tons CO2 per year. Oil palm plantations on peat often have a yearly production of 3 tons oil per ha. So, one ton of palm oil originating from peatland results in the emission of more than 20 tons CO2, from the soil alone. Any of these production methods could hardly be called sustainable. Keeping the water table under the peat high may slow down the microbial decomposition, but the end result will be the same: i.e. by keeping the water level 40 cm under the peat surface will just mean deeper drainage as the peat shrinks. Definitely not a sustainable solution.