The haze from land-clearing fires blanketing Sumatra, Kalimantan and peninsular Southeast Asia for the past two months has now extended to Papua, with the blame falling on an agriculture development project aimed at turning the easternmost district of Merauke into an unlikely food bowl.
President Joko Widodo has ordered a nation-wide moratorium on peatland cultivation as the burning season drags on, exacerbated by what may be strongest drought-inducing El Nino weather phenomena in 18 years that threatens failed crops and higher food prices.
According to Dutch earth scientist Guido van der Werf, the 115,000 fires detected across Indonesia this year until 25 October have churned out more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. On many days, that exceeds the 15 million tons of fossil fuel emissions recorded daily across the whole of the US.
The fires have so far razed 1.7 million hectares, but those in peatland are notoriously difficult to extinguish, giving off the most smoke and burning at a depth of five and 10 metres which makes them impervious to aerial water bombing.
While the effects of the so-called El Nino Southern Oscillation have been moderate so far, Indonesia’s National Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) predicts it will strengthen over the next two months and last well into next year.
Similar estimates come from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), leading the World Bank to forecast the possibility of lower GDP growth and higher inflation next year.
The Bank’s latest quarterly report says a severe El Nino could damage up to 400,000 hectares of paddy land and cut rice output by more than one million tons. An Indonesian Agriculture Ministry study estimates that, in turn, may halve farmers’ household income.
While the southern slopes of Papua’s central highlands are routinely socked in by low-hanging afternoon cloud, the smoke from forest fires is a new hazard, shutting the airport in the southeast coastal mining town of Timika for days on end.
Much of the smoke is now drifting westwards from the controversial Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate. The estate is part of the Indonesian Government’s drive for food self-sufficiency—a policy many economists think is misplaced.
Ever since President Suharto achieved rice self-sufficiency nearly four decades ago, Indonesians have come to regard importing rice as a sign of failure—and a source of political instability if the price isn’t properly managed.
That’s what lay behind Suharto’s failed million-hectare rice project in Central Kalimantan’s peatlands in the mid-1990s, which was launched to meet increased consumption but caused an environmental disaster instead.
Merauke is a similarly massive and environmentally-fraught undertaking, involving at least 36 companies and designed to produce 2 million tons each of rice, corn and sugar, 167,000 tons of soybeans and 937,000 tons of palm oil from 1.3 million hectares of newly-cleared forest land.
Conceived by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government—and now supported by the Widodo administration—it has been described by Land Deal Politics Initiative as a ‘textbook land-grab’ of ancestral lands and a ‘strategic location for national development fantasies’.
Global Forest Watch currently counts more than 700 hotspots around Merauke, spreading across the nearby border into Papua New Guinea where the Ok Tedi copper mine has already been closed because of a water shortage.
Climatologists attribute a much drier October to the progressive strengthening of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, which cools surface waters in the east and reduces rainfall across Australia and Indonesia.
Longer-term climate predictions aren’t encouraging either.
A 10-year-long study released last year showed that the sea current, pushing warm waters from the western Pacific into the Indian Ocean through Indonesia’s network of straits, is acting differently and could transform the climate in both ocean basins as a result.
Indonesia is the only tropical location in the world where two oceans interact in this manner, with the so-called Indonesia-Through-Flow (IFT) playing a role in everything from Indian monsoons to the region’s increasingly frequent El Nino’s.
The main in-flow passage through the archipelago is the Makassar Strait which separates Borneo from Sulawesi. Some water then enters the Indian Ocean through the Lombok Strait, between Lombok and Bali, while the bulk flows east into the Banda Sea and out through the Ombai Strait and Timor Passage.
According to American and Australian scientists, the IFT has become shallower and more intense in the same way water passes through a kinked hose. That suggests that climate change may worsen the effects of the El Nino and its wet sister, La Nina.
The 1990s in Indonesia were largely characterized by sustained El Nino conditions—particularly towards the end of the decade—which then changed to large swings between El Nino and La Nina conditions in the 2000s.
Indonesians remember El Nina from 2010-2011 when the cooling of the Pacific meant they didn’t have a dry season at all. So do hapless Queenslanders, who were deluged with rain for eight straight months and suffered the worst flooding in their history.
Now comes yet another severe El Nino, which began in late August when the trade winds weakened and the surface water being driven across the central and eastern Pacific became progressively warmer because of its longer exposure to solar heating.
The worst of these such events occurred in 1997-98. With rainfall well below the average for March and April, a year-long drought set in, triggering calamitous bush-fires across Kalimantan and Sumatra as farmers sought to replace depleted food crops.
Lead researcher Janet Sprintall, of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes changes in the IFT could shift rainfall patterns across the whole Asian region. In other words, the seasons could be turned completely on their heads, with all that means for agriculture and fisheries in Indonesia and many of its Southeast Asian neighbours.
If the climatologists are right, the future may already be here. As the situation continued to deteriorate this week—and the haze spread for the first time across western Java—President Widodo cut short his visit to the US and flew home to take charge of the mass evacuation of mothers and children from the worst-hit areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
It has never been this bad, not even in 1997-98. Like his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s experience with the devastating 2004 Aceh tsunami, Widodo now has a national disaster on his hands—this time, manmade. The haze crisis could have even bigger consequences for Indonesia and its neighbours than the tsunami.