KUALA LUMPUR – Weak enforcement of restrictions to curb COVID-19 infections in rural Indonesia, coupled with farmers opting for cheap ways to clear land, could see a repeat of the forest fires and smoke that choked Southeast Asia last year, environmentalists have said.
The annual haze season, from around June until October, caused airports and schools to close in 2019. The burning of an estimated 16,000 square kilometers of land cost Indonesia $5.2 billion in economic losses, according to the World Bank.
More than 900,000 people also reported respiratory illnesses.
Like many other countries, this year Indonesia is also tackling the new coronavirus, but the government has been criticized for its slow response and low testing rates. Jakarta officials expect infections to peak at about 100,000 by June.
“My concern is that social distancing and lockdowns may not be monitored and implemented as strictly in the rural areas,” said Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Deploying government personnel to enforce the lockdown rules may pull them away from watching forests and farmers to prevent illegal land-clearing, she said.
Indonesian farmers burn huge swaths of forest and peat land each year to make way for oil palm plantations and other agricultural expansion, creating a vast haze of smoke that clouds the skies over large parts of the region.
Last year’s forest fires, which caused a diplomatic spat between Indonesia and Malaysia, were the worst since 2015.
Varkkey, who has researched the haze problem for more than 15 years, said despite coronavirus-linked restrictions on movement, annual forest fires in and around Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai had still occurred over the last month.
In the southern part of Southeast Asia, the traditional burning season falls later in the year, “but if the situation in Thailand is anything to go by, I am not optimistic that COVID-19 will have any positive effect on reducing haze”, she added.
As coronavirus lockdowns close restaurants, analysts expect prices and demand for palm oil — used in everything from instant noodles to confectionery — to fall.
Prices have dropped about 30 percent since January.
Despite this, palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s top two growers, have largely remained open through the health crisis.
“If the industry continues putting production interests above environmental security, then the fire crisis may well be as bad or worse than 2019,” warned Rusmadya Maharuddin, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
Falls in palm oil prices, if short term, may not affect the sector too much, Varkkey said. But the concern is that if palm growers continue to expand, they may prefer cheaper clearing methods, including fire, to cut costs.
At the same time, the Indonesian government is diverting spending to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, which is putting a huge strain on the country’s health system. That would be exacerbated if the 2020 haze season was particularly bad.
Earlier this month, the environment ministry cut its budget for 2020 by about $101 million, a 17 percent reduction on spending originally planned for the year, local media have reported.
The world’s fourth most populous country, with more than 260 million people, has recorded about 7,000 virus infections so far.
That is Southeast Asia’s second-highest tally after neighboring city state Singapore, though some estimates put the figure far higher. Indonesia’s COVID-19 death toll of about 600 is the highest in East Asia after China.
“We are facing a global health crisis with a virus that affects people’s lungs,” said Maharuddin.
“Companies and governments have a crucial and unprecedented responsibility to take steps to prevent the deadly haze from the forest fires, as it will only double the threat to the health of millions across the region,” he added.
Indonesia’s environment ministry could not be reached for comment. The country’s weather agency has forecast that the dry season will not be as extreme as in 2019, which may help ease the risk of fires spreading.
After the 2015 fires, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo set up an agency to restore more than 2 million hectares of damaged peat land and imposed a moratorium on new oil palm concessions.
But green activists warned that the cuts to environmental funding, the slow rate of peat land restoration and planned new laws aimed at reducing red tape and boosting investment would limit Indonesia’s ability to tackle forest fires this year.
“This time bomb will lead to major fires causing haze from damaged peat lands,” said Riko Kurniawan, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment in Riau, a province on Sumatra island with a large expanse of peatland.
“Without serious work by the government, the risk of fires in 2020 will be high,” said Teguh Surya, executive director of the Madani Sustainability Foundation, an Indonesian green group.
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