As fires ravaged Indonesia in 2023, some positive trends emerged, data show

  • Indonesia’s 2023 fire season saw 1.16 million hectares (2.87 million acres) of land and forest go up in flames, and while this was five times higher than in 2022, experts highlight a positive trend.
  • The fires were exacerbated by an intense El Niño weather system, unlike in 2022; the last time similar conditions prevailed, in 2019, the area affected by fires was much larger, suggesting fire mitigation efforts may be working.
  • Most of the burning occurred in scrubland and areas of degraded forest rather than in intact forests, meaning greenhouse gas emissions from the burning were also much lower than in 2023.
  • But a worrying trend highlighted by the numbers is that severe fires are now occurring in four-year cycles, intensified and exacerbated by the impacts of a changing climate.

JAKARTA — 2023 saw the worst fire season in Indonesia since 2019, with an area the size of Qatar going up in flames, according to official government data.

A total of 1.16 million hectares (2.87 million acres) of land and forest were burned last year, with an intense El Niño weather pattern a major factor. The fires led to 13,260 hectares (32,800 acres) of primary forest loss, according to data from the University of Maryland available at the Global Forest Watch (GFW) platform administered by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

These figures, while alarming on their own, are much lower than the acreage burned and primary forest loss from 2019, when the country experienced a milder El Niño. That’s an indication that Indonesia is heading in the right direction in terms of fire prevention and mitigation, said Arief Wijaya, the program director at the WRI Indonesia.

“Indeed, the government and the private sector already have strong commitments for [mitigating] fires,” Arief told Mongabay. “Even large concessions are working together with the people to tackle fires.”

Hilman Afif, a campaigner at the environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara, said the new data highlight another, more disturbing trend: that major fire seasons are now routinely recurring every five years. One of the most severe fire seasons in Indonesia occurred in 2015, followed by a less intense one in 2019. That means the country can expect another major fire episode four years from now, Hilman said, with that four-year cycle potentially becoming shorter and more unpredictable due to climate change.

“So we can’t say that this is happy news,” he said. “The best scenario is to have no fires. Don’t compare 2023 with 2019, but compare it with previous years when there were few fires,” he added, referring to 2022, when the total burned area was just a fifth of the 2023 total.

Haze rising from an oil palm plantation and forest in Riau province.
Haze rising from an oil palm plantation and forest in Riau province. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Law enforcement

Since the 2015 fires, the Indonesian government has beefed up its efforts to prevent and tackle fires, notably through stronger law enforcement. In 2023, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry shuttered 38 concessions where burning occurred, including several oil palm plantations, and issued 353 warning letters to the concession holders.

The ministry also filed eight civil lawsuits last year against companies for negligence leading to the fires on their land. Since 2013, the ministry has sued 24 companies for negligence, winning favorable judgments against 18 to date. These companies have been ordered to pay a combined 9.2 trillion rupiah ($580 million) in fines, but none has paid in full.

“So far, the legal actions that we’ve taken have proved to have an impact on stopping the destruction of the environment [from fires],” said Jasmin Ragil Utomo, the environment ministry’s director of environmental dispute settlement.

The ministry’s latest legal victory was against palm oil company PT Sari Asri Rezeki Indonesia (SARI), which operates a 2,800-hectare (6,900-acre) concession in Southeast Sulawesi province. Some 80% of the concession is carbon-rich peatland, which plantation operators usually dry out by digging canals to drain the wet peat soil. The dry peat that’s left behind is then rendered highly flammable, raising the risk of fires spreading.

In 2017-2018, fires burned across 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of the concession, resulting in environmental and economic losses that the environment ministry pegged at 119 billion rupiah ($7.5 million). The ministry sued SARI for the fires in 2019, a court subsequently found the company liable, and in March 2024 the Supreme Court upheld the ruling and ordered the company to pay 405 billion rupiah ($25.5 million) in fines.

The environment ministry’s law enforcement department head, Rasio Ridho Sani, said the Supreme Court’s verdict is legally binding, meaning SARI has no further avenues of appeal, and so must pay up immediately. He added the verdict should serve as a lesson to other companies to not clear lands using fires and to keep their concessions free from fires.

“The Supreme Court’s verdict shows that the environment ministry is strict against companies that are not serious in having good corporate governance for environmental management and protection, particularly land and forest fires,” Rasio said.

A peatland burns during Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze crisis. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Degraded land vs. forests

Yet the persistent use of fires to clear land across Indonesia shows how complex the issue is, with many factors influencing it, the WRI’s Arief said. Most of the fires in 2023 occurred in areas that weren’t primary forest, or where primary forest had been degraded several years earlier.

“Burning intact rainforest is more difficult than burning shrubs and unmanaged lands, those that have been degraded and left unmanaged. These are easier to burn,” Arief said.

RI global forest director Rod Taylor said the 2023 fires in general burned dry and open landscapes as well as agricultural areas, but not forests. This might also explain why emissions from the 2023 fires were significantly lower than in 2019 when a greater proportion of forests were burned, Arief said.

“This means that policies to mitigate fires are very effective in reducing emissions from the land-use sector,” he said.


Banner image: A peat swamp in Sumatra smolders during the 2015 haze crisis. The drainage canals were dug in order to prepare the land for planting with oil palm, but the practice renders the land vulnerable to catching fire. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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