$30 billion dollars. That is the total negative economic impact of this year’s forest fires in Indonesia. These costs do not hit Indonesia alone—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and even the Philippines have been affected, according to data presented by Herry Purnomo, Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and Professor at Bogor Agricultural University.
“In fact, 43 million people were exposed to fire—and nineteen people died due to toxic haze,” said Purnomo during a session on private sector engagement to prevent fires in Indonesia at the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris, alongside UNFCCC COP21 negotiations.
Though the costs to the region as a whole are huge, there are many people who benefit from fires—and that’s where the problem lies. Each hectare burned provides $486 in short-term benefits, spread across a large group of people ranging from village heads, farmers, group organizers, and officers. Considering nearly 2 million hectares of land burned in the past few months, that’s a lot of money.
“If it is planted with oil palm, the value of the land increases to US$3000 per hectare. It is an economy on the ground—this burning, clearing, planting, conducted by powerful people on the ground,” said Purnomo.
Purnomo’s data also showed that wood plantations—the source of pulp for paper—were the source of most hotspots, as detected by satellites, with palm oil second, showing the strong connection between industrial agriculture and fires.
It is not, however, as straightforward as satellite images may make it seem. Many palm oil and pulp supplies come from smallholders, who often live in legal ambiguity. Many lack official land tenure, which is prohibitively expensive to obtain.
Mansuetus Alsy Hanu, with the Indonesia’s Palm Oil Smallholders Union, cautioned that those who used fire to grab land were probably not smallholders in his definition, but probably middle-size holders. They have the incentive to use fire to clear and claim charred land to turn into plantations, not traditional smallholders.
One point of consensus: all stakeholders need better data – not only on the impacts of fire, but also on what is happening on the ground before it burns. Lack of proper maps means that it is difficult to know where concessions begin and end and who is responsible for each fire. Several Indonesian NGOs have spent years pursuing a one map initiative, which would clearly define and designate land concessions across the country, making it easier for both governments and civil society to connect fires with those who caused it, and better allocate resources to prevent fires.