The Politics of Forest Fires in Southeast Asia.

AuthorAnsori, Sofyan

By mid-2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) had lost three legal judgements: one at the Palangka Raya administrative court; another at the Palangka Raya high court; and the third at the Supreme Court. The verdicts consistently found Jokowi had failed in his responsibility to deal with the catastrophic 2015 forest fire in Central Kalimantan. (1) These legal proceedings added an extra layer of political pressure to the Indonesian government to tackle the problem of forest fires. Jokowi had been forced to apologize to the international community, particularly to neighbouring countries, for the peatland fires and haze that year. Jokowi was not the first. His predecessor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also had to apologize to the governments of Malaysia and Singapore. (2) Even the late President Suharto was confronted with the same shameful experience: he had to ask other Southeast Asian countries for forgiveness because of the regional impact of Indonesia's forest fires and the resultant haze in 1997. (3)

This article explicates the relationship between forest fires as environmental disasters and political processes in Southeast Asia. In the context of Southeast Asian politics, forest fires have repeatedly situated Indonesia in an unfavourable position. After several regional meetings throughout the 1990s, in 2002 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finalized the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Although Indonesia was not identified as the main "culprit", it was understood that the treaty was aimed at addressing the fires in Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. (4) Under growing pressure, Indonesia formally ratified the Agreement in 2014 by issuing Law 26/2014 ("Ratification of ASEAN Agreement")--12 years after the other ASEAN members had signed the pact. (5) Many Southeast Asian observers associate forest fires in this region exclusively with Indonesia. However, this is misleading as Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and the other countries in Southeast Asia have also been affected by forest fires raging within their borders, especially in the last decade. Nevertheless, no other country in this region suffers as much from forest fires as Indonesia.

This article asks why and how forest fires matter with regard to Southeast Asian politics. Furthermore, compared to other countries, why does Indonesia suffer the greatest impact from forest fires, both economically and politically? Understanding the linkage between forest fires and Southeast Asian politics is essential as these fires represent the outcomes of decades of forest exploitation in the region. Among Southeast Asian countries, there are some commonalities in terms of forest fire occurrence and its underlying causes. Nevertheless, while the relationship between fire and forest degradation has been well-documented, the explanation for excessive forest exploitation in this region remains poorly elaborated.

One main thread in the existing literature emphasizes the colonial legacy in the forestry sector as the leading cause for forest exploitation and degradation in the region. It argues that post-colonial nations in Southeast Asia inherited and perpetuated the forest-leaning colonial practices by dominating the forests and exploiting timber resources to achieve economic goals and buttress political interests. (6) Such an overarching claim cannot adequately explain the stark differences in the impact of forest fires in Indonesia in comparison to the rest of Southeast Asia. Therefore, to offer an alternative argument, I suggest that forest fires cause more damage in Indonesia because local political elites and oligarchs, in the reckless pursuit of wealth, have disregarded the particular geographical and environmental risks specific to Indonesia. In contrast to other Southeast Asian countries, many of Indonesia's resource-rich forests are predominantly peatland ecosystems. Serious damage to this ecosystem since the 1960s has resulted in combustible areas that prolong fire disasters once they have started. By highlighting the role of elites and oligarchs in the making of a fire-prone Indonesia, this article challenges the notion of colonial legacy as the leading cause of forest degradation in Southeast Asian countries.

To substantiate this claim, I anchor the analysis in the Indonesian case while drawing select comparisons to Myanmar and Thailand. The Myanmar case provides a critical comparative edge because, according to the Global Forest Watch database, (7) the country has had the highest frequency of fire alerts in Southeast Asia since 2000. While all eyes have been focused on Indonesia, Myanmar has also been burning. Meanwhile, the case of Thailand helps to clarify the extent of colonial influence on forest mismanagement. The forest fires in Thailand indicate that the continuation of colonial practices that have led most Southeast Asian countries to environmental crises has been given undeserved primacy.

The article consists of three main sections. The first briefly discusses the economic and political implications of forest fires in Southeast Asia to demonstrate that these environmental calamities are not particular to any single country but rather pose a regional problem. The second examines the pattern of the forest-oriented economy in Southeast Asia and its association with colonial legacies. Thereafter, the article goes on to analyse the negligence of local political actors in Indonesia towards the country's specific environmental landscape, which explains the disproportionate impact of forest fires on the Indonesian economy and politics. The article concludes by suggesting that, even when colonial influence may remain a relevant factor in certain cases, it is necessary to pay proportional attention to local political configurations and specific environmental characteristics to better understand the politics of forest fires in Southeast Asia.

Forest Fires in Southeast Asia: An Overview

Environmentally, forest and land fires cause an enormous disturbance to the natural world and perpetuate a vicious cycle. Each fire episode amplifies the role of extreme hot dry weather, which in turn allows more frequent and intense fires. (8) In Southeast Asia, forest fires also disrupt the economy and interfere with regional political processes. Recent data from the Global Forest Watch shows that forest fires are a regional problem rather than a series of isolated and individual cases. This section establishes a foundational understanding of the similarities and differences in regional forest fire events and their implications throughout Southeast Asia.

While it is relatively hard to trace forest fire episodes from the 1990s, satellites and other remote sensing technologies have provided a better picture of such fires since the early 2000s. Table 1 shows that for almost two decades, no country in Southeast Asia has been entirely safe from forest fires.

Prior to 1983, biologists and ecologists believed that massive fires were not a common occurrence in evergreen and wet tropical forests. (11) The massive Bornean fires that occurred in 1982-83 in Sabah and East Kalimantan--including at a local conservation area, Bukit Suharto (12)--rendered this perspective obsolete. It is widely believed that the fire was directly associated with the weather anomalies El Nino and the Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which caused extremely dry conditions. (13) Nevertheless, scholars have also acknowledged that weather alone could not damage tropical forests unless the ecosystem had been compromised. In the years that followed, forest fires became more frequent, intense and extensive due to forest exploitation. (14)

The most notable man-made fire disaster in Southeast Asia occurred in 1997-98. At that time, fires were blazing across Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. It is estimated that the fire damaged between two and five million hectares of forest and non-forest lands. Meanwhile, 75 million people were affected by the resulting smoke and haze, as the toxic air pollution reached neighbouring countries. With many sectors impacted, the total economic losses for Indonesia were estimated at between US$8.5 billion and US$9.4 billion. (15) Domestically, political elites, entrepreneurs, public officials and many other actors were deemed complicit, with the public demanding accountability. International pressure on Indonesia worsened as rebukes came not only from Southeast Asian countries, but also from the United States, European countries and global financiers. Several corporations were found guilty, but some oligarchs and politicians connected to President Suharto, such as Liem Sioe Liong and Muhammad "Bob" Hasan, were protected. (16) The state dismissed the allegations by formally categorizing the 1997-98 fires as a "natural disaster". (17)

The political transformation in Indonesia which followed the end of the New Order era in 1998 did not bring an end to the problems associated with fire disasters. Many politicians and oligarchs continued to benefit from the expansion of plantations encouraged by the World Bank and other international financial institutions. (18) It was reported that a four-month forest and land fire in 2015 contributed to 3 per cent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions, burned 2.6 million hectares of land, killed 24 people and cost the country US$16.1 billion. (19) The fires produced carcinogenic gases, resulting in more illnesses and deaths in the affected population compared with the 1997-98 episode. (20) Inhaled lethal fine particles (PM25) contributed directly and indirectly to the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people in Southeast Asia. (21) In 2019, another forest fire catastrophe took place in Indonesia and caused economic losses estimated at US$5.2 billion. (22)

Politically, forest and land fires have influenced the power dynamics between national and...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT