Votes trump clean air as Indonesia polls worsen forest fires


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Indonesian police and firefighters extinguish a fire on burning peat land in the district of Kapuas in the Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island. Photo: AFP Indonesian police and firefighters extinguish a fire on burning peat land in the district of Kapuas in the Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island. Photo: AFP


Indonesia’s forest fire-induced haze that has shrouded Southeast Asia for months has probably been made worse by electioneering ahead of the country’s local polls in December, a study has found.
The practice of giving land handouts during campaigns increases access to forest that can be cleared by fire for plantations, according to research by forestry scientist Herry Purnomo at the independent Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research. Fires have increased in the years when local polls have also been held, he said.
His study, which is unpublished and continuing, highlights the complexities for Indonesia’s government led by President Joko Widodo in tackling the fires that are an annual occurrence and have been prolonged this year, blanketing Indonesia and parts of Southeast Asia in thick smoke. With local elections slated for next month, the promise of land permits is a selling point for candidates for mayor or regional governor, Purnomo said.
“Land has become a political tool, not just money,” said Purnomo, who is also a professor at Bogor Agricultural University. “Prior to elections, candidates will spoil voters and companies,” he said. “People who get land certificates from candidates will often burn the land to cultivate it.”
Worst polluter
The fires, reduced in November by the start of the monsoon season, have in the past four months burnt an area four times the size of the tourist island of Bali, produced the haze that closed airports and led to respiratory illnesses, and made Indonesia the world’s worst greenhouse gas polluter. Authorities have struggled to prevent the blazes, given the web of opaque land ownership and vested interests.
There are more than 250 local elections scheduled for Dec. 9. Under a decentralized system in the world’s third-largest democracy, local leaders elected every five years wield the power to give out development licenses and spend central government funds in their area. Local elections held in April 2014 for members of parliament saw political parties offer insurance and loans to voters as well as traditional giveaways of cash, food and t-shirts.
Clearing land by burning costs about 600,000 to 800,000 rupiah ($44-$59) per hectare, compared to 3.4 million rupiah without burning, according to the country’s disaster agency, citing research from Riau University.
Local elections
Forest and land fires started to increase when local elections kicked off in 2004, the first year local leaders were directly elected in Indonesia, according to Purnomo’s data. The highest number of hotspots occurred in 2004, 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2015, around the time of elections, the data show.
The burning this time has been among the worst on record, creating tensions with neighbor Singapore. Widodo, known as Jokowi, is under pressure to deliver solutions ahead of United Nations climate talks in Paris next month. Indonesia pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent from projected levels in 2030, through reducing deforestation.
“The major issue is we issued so many licenses for peatlands,” Luhut Panjaitan, the coordinating law minister, told Bloomberg. He pledged that new licenses won’t be issued.
Family rights
The central government aims to complete rules banning the burning of land, yet the problem is often enforcement on the ground and it’s the local governments that have control over the licenses.
While large-scale burning is already illegal, families are allowed to burn 2 hectares each, in a country with traditional slash-and-burn farming practices. That can be exploited by people buying up family rights.
Jokowi came to power pledging to tackle corruption, though parliament is now considering revising a law to reduce the ability of the country’s anti-graft agency, known as the KPK, to pursue cases.
Decentralization has spread corruption to the regions, with more than 60 local chiefs and hundreds of officials arrested for corruption from 2004 through the third quarter of this year, according to KPK data. Indonesia ranked 107th on a list of countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014.
The elections have also affected the budgets for disaster prevention. Local governments are spending 0.02 percent of their budgets for mitigating disasters including fires, while ideally it should be a minimum 1 percent, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman at the disaster mitigation agency.
“Disaster prevention is considered unimportant,” he said. “The budget is often proposed but it’s not approved by local legislators, or there’s no initiative from local legislators to increase it.”

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