Dehazing Indonesia’s effort to support sustainable timber production and self-sufficiency in food, energy and water


On 21 and 22 October 2015, more than 600 forest scientists and practitioners from 12 countries met at the Institut Pertanian Bogor, Indonesia for the Third International Conference of Indonesia’s Forestry Research (INAFOR).

The minister and senior staff of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry were unable to attend because they were fighting fires that had reached the top of the policy agenda.

In August, we published an ASB policy brief—Stopping haze when it rains: lessons learnt in 20 years of Alternatives-to-Slash-and-Burn research in Indonesia—which suggested that part of the problem was the short-term memory of the public debate: making promises in the midst of the smokey haze but forgetting them as soon as rains have returned and the fires doused.

In my contribution to the INAFOR conference, I offered that the current fires and the haze they produced

  • were related to Indonesia’s efforts to increase the production of timber (in industrial timber estates) and food (including oil palm);
  • dissipate the energy in a large amount of biomass that, if harnessed properly, could more than meet Indonesia’s energy requirements; and
  • were linked to a dry extreme of the Indonesian climate (potentially made more extreme by global climate change) in which water supply to all forms of agriculture and human use is limited, beyond what our forests can buffer.
Burning peat forest, Sumatra. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Burning peat forest, Sumatra. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Thus, we might need to understand the way answers to four questions for food, energy and water security interrelate.

  1. Potential supply exceeds demand.
  2. Access to supply exists irrespective of location, wealth, social status or gender, at affordable costs.
  3. Utilization of the supply for generating human benefits is not restricted by human or environmental health.
  4. Sovereignty of decision making at national, subnational and household scales reflects common but differentiated responsibility.

Under President Suharto, a one-million hectare scheme of peatland conversion was initiated in the name of food security. Under President Yudhoyono, a food estate was planned in Merauke, Papua, of at least one million hectares. Is it an accident that these two areas are now among the hot spots of land-conversion fires that produce the haze? The policy shift of production forest to production of fatwood for the pulp and paper industries is closely linked with a lot of the land clearing fires. Yet, food security is not achieved and vulnerable groups suffer (or even die) from haze.

Analysis of the fires as reflected in the open-access ForestWatch website suggests that the fires are highly concentrated: over 50% of fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan is on peat soils (and 9% of fires in Papua), 6–7% in protected areas (in Papua, 28%), and 23–34% in the areas supposedly protected by the moratorium (40% in Papua).


Maps of fire 'hotspots, 1 June-24 October 2015. Source: ForestWatch

Maps of fire ‘hotspots, 1 June-24 October 2015. Source: ForestWatch


On Sumatra, industrial timber dominates and three concessions in South Sumatra Province are responsible for one-third of all hot spots. Three districts account for two-thirds of all hot spots. In Kalimantan, the top three districts account for one-third of hot spots. Twenty-three percent (23%) of fires are in oil-palm concessions but there are many companies involved. In Papua, 94% of hot spots is in three districts and industrial-timber plantations again are prominent but not as dominant as in Sumatra.

It is too easy to blame the fires on the El Niño event, even though it is on track to become worse than the worst-so-far, of 1997. It is too easy to fall back into the old blame game of pointing to either smallholders or large plantations; clearly, both are involved.

In 1997/8, the economic damage of the haze to health and public welfare was estimated to be about USD 20 billion, of the same order of magnitude of the gross annual value of Indonesian palm-oil exports. When divided by the estimated carbon emissions, this translates to a cost to Indonesian society of 50–100 $/tCO2. This cost is more than tenfold what carbon markets can be expected to bring to Indonesia. It seems that the idea of carbon finance has lulled Indonesian public debate into such a state that the current haze can be blamed on lack of delivery on the REDD+ promise. It is primarily a sign that collective action does not emerge at the scale required to avoid excessive losses to individuals who have no means of responding, other than to try to stay home and wait for the worst to pass by.

Self-sufficiency in food, energy, timber and water will not come to Indonesia until these issues take centre stage in the local elections and in national policy discourse. Current forestry research in Indonesia can do little to achieve the valid target of the INAFOR meeting but at least the discussions in these two days opened up for a wider debate.


Read more

Tata HL, van Noordwijk M, Sakuntaladewi N, Wibowo LR, Bastoni, Tampubolon AP, Susmianto A, Widayati A. 2015. Stopping haze when it rains: lessons learnt in 20 years of Alternatives-to-Slash-and-Burn research in Indonesia. ASB Brief 45. Nairobi. ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins.



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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry'

Meine van Noordwijk

Meine van Noordwijk is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre. He joined the organization in 1993. Dr van Noordwijk guided the global integration of the Centre’s science and co-led ICRAF's global research program on environmental services. He also participated in a number of bilateral projects and is professor of agroforestry at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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