Asia Pacific

Land Mafia Fire Game Lights Up Indonesia

Forest fire

© Shutterstock

November 11, 2015 23:55 EDT

The seriousness of the Indonesian forest fires can no longer be ignored.

As 40 million people gasp for breath and tens of thousands of hectares of forest are on fire in Indonesia, the world continues to revolve like nothing dangerous happens. When more than 500,000 people suffer from acute respiratory infection and wildlife habitat are exposed to damage, people across the globe have barely responded.

For the past two months, the sky of the Borneo and Sumatra islands has been blurred in smoke, just as hazy as the huge capitalism game behind this structured, man-made eco-disaster.

What makes matters worse is that mass media appear to be gradually slipping away even though, as George Monbiot said, it’s almost definitely the 21st century’s greatest environmental disaster to date.

Despite the fact that approximately 40 million people are breathing in noxious smoke day in, day out, the international community seems to care little, if not at all, about the situation. This is indeed surprising, considering that not only is there unspeakable human travail, with a large number of people ill and significant others dead, but the illicit smoke is also a considerable cost to the country’s economy.

Land Mafia Fires

In Indonesia, forests are intentionally inflamed nearly every year during dry season to clear land for commercial plantations, notably palm oil and the pulp industry. Fires are ignited in isolated zones, thus it is frequently hard to pinpoint whose land is burning. So, finding those responsible is a difficult thing to do—sometimes even impossible.

The worst part is that often, the burned area covers flammable peatlands with its ability to snare fire, subsequently festering underground for a long time making it impossible to be quenched.

Though this act of burning land is strictly allowed for up to 2 hectares only, landowners and farmers do not even care. In fact, together with local government and capitalist corporations, they are the ones who make profitable business over this hazardous fire game.

In Indonesia, there is something called “land economic fee.” Meaning, local farmers who sell their land to corporate plantations will get a much higher price if the land is already burned, since it’s considered “ready to be planted.” To put this in perspective, unburned land is worth $640 per hectare, while burned land is valued at $820 per hectare.

In fact, the sales fee is like a fresh pie. Landowners, land marketers, the farmers group and workers each get their own piping hot slice. Local governments even reserve a 10% to 13% stake of the fee to compensate their given authorities. In reality, this seemingly eco-disaster is indeed a man-made fire game. Nothing can stop this deadly haze without switching off the source of flame: the land mafia practice.

The public put the blame partly on increasing market demand for palm and wood commodities from these areas, as well as changing climate patterns that have helped in the worsening of fogs. This has been far worsened by the prolonged dry season, which speeds up blazing and makes it more difficult to turn off the fires once they are ignited. This endangers lives and has made this year’s haze the most destructive ever.

The drawback has been an increase in breathing problems not only throughout Indonesia, but also Southeast Asia, with official predictions hitting detrimental levels. Approximately 150,000 people have endured breathing conditions in different parts of the country. Educational institutions in Indonesia and in nations such as Singapore and Malaysia have been closed. It is estimated that the fires will cost Indonesia $47 billion, and neighboring states will also be affected, thanks to airport and business closures as well as increased health care costs.

Jakarta’s Response

The Indonesian government’s response has been varied and insufficient. Several provinces have declared a state of emergency. More than 20,000 personnel have been sent to assist, and some amounts of cash have been spent to repel the situation. Although Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered the Forestry and Environment Ministry to halt issuance of permits for peatland cultivation and to review all existing permits, his decision to refuse help from Singapore remains questionable.

Not to forget, approximately 200 enterprises and 100 individuals have been under investigation for the fires. But it is important to understand that many of these estates are owned by individuals or entities with strong political links, and it can be said that imposition of law has been desultory at most.

Overall, as Indonesians have argued, the government in Jakarta has been unable to exert strong resolutions over the situation, and many of these efforts have largely been insufficient. As Indonesia-based ecologist Erik Meijaard argues, the main reason behind the government’s limited response is that it still has not acknowledged how serious the situation is.

The best way to solve the issue is by eradicating the “land mafia” practice. This can be started by naming and shaming the individuals and companies liable for the fires. However, it is convoluted by the predicament in pinpointing the owner of particular plots of land; registries are not properly stored and are often out-of-date. The government is reported to have set out to relinquish entities allegedly liable for starting the fires. But neighboring countries must also chastise these companies by outlawing their goods and products.

In this case, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should play a more active role in putting an end to the situation. Unfortunately, it has not been able to help end the worsening situation despite the fact there is an instrument to do so: the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was signed and ratified by all ASEAN member countries in 2002.

The seriousness of the current situation can no longer be ignored. It must end without delay. It is beyond obvious that many people are in dire need of concrete efforts by both the Indonesian government and the regional community to help alleviate the deteriorating condition.

The most crucial step that needs to be taken is to realize how critical the problem is and the implications it may bring about. Then, it is important to hit liable corporations. Not just by taking them to court, but by banning their products. There is no more point in applying a loose and weak approach to deal with these nature-breaker companies. As the former director of Southeast Asia Greenpeace stated, a “constructive engagement” with those companies is useless as we should take a firm position to fight against them.

In regard to a long-term solution, many scientists have proposed different “safer” methods to clear lands. Both governments and consumers must encourage the use of sustainable methods, especially those that are certified as “green.”

In the end, we can only hope that as the rain season comes and naturally extinguishes the fire, those criminals’ sins will not be washed away and that people will not simply forget about this disaster.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mellimage /

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