Forests and/or pants on fire?: Fact-checking Jokowi’s ‘no fires for 3 years’ statement

Photo of fires in Riau posted on Sept 17, 2018 by Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the Head of the National Agency for Disaster Management’s Data Information and Public Relations Center.  Photo: @Sutopo_PN / Twitter
Photo of fires in Riau posted on Sept 17, 2018 by Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the Head of the National Agency for Disaster Management’s Data Information and Public Relations Center. Photo: @Sutopo_PN / Twitter

Judging from the post-debate commentary and memes, President Joko Widodo was generally rated the more skilled debater during last night’s verbal sparring match between himself and rival candidate Prabowo Subianto, the second in the run-up to the April 17 election.

But one assertion from the incumbent that has come under fire, especially among environmentalists, is his statement that there had been no forest conflagrations in the last three years under his administration.

“Peatland fires no longer happen and we can deal with them. In the past three years, there have been no land, forest or peat fires and it is all due to our hard work,” Jokowi said yesterday night during the second televised debate, which covered environmental, infrastructure, food security, and energy issues.

Greenpeace Indonesia was quick to question that statement.

Pak @jokowi just issued a statement that forest fires did not take place for the last 3 years. Is that a fact?

Since the biggest forest fire tragedy of 2015, forest and land fires continue to happen every year until now. #DebatCapres

They then followed up with a link to a news story from state-run news agency Antara regarding a major forest fire that took place in Riau just this month.

The official Twitter account of the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry (KLHK) responded to Greenpeace’s initial tweet with their own in the president’s defense:

In fact, since 2017 we are no longer a smoke exporter. The acceleration of handling by the government has succeeded in suppressing the extent of fires and there is no more cross-country smoke which has paralyzed economic activity at the community level

In a second tweet, the ministry added:

By using the term there is no forest fire what was meant is that there were none that became a disaster (referring to the understanding of forest fires according to Notohadinegoro, 2006). Ever since 2017, there has not been any cross country smoke.

Based on a literal interpretation of what Jokowi said during the debate, he was plainly wrong about there not being any land, forest or peat fires — according to data from KLHK itself, there were more than 14,604.84 ha of burning peatland in 2016, 11,127.49 ha burned in 2017 and 4,666.39 in 2018.

But let’s be generous and accept KLHK’s definition, which argues that Jokowi only meant that there were no fires major enough to be declared a national disaster or cause cross-country smoke.

Cross-country smoke in this context is a reference to what is popularly known to as “haze”, i.e smoke from forest or land fires that is emitted on such a large scale that it crosses national boundaries and worsens air quality in other countries. The last major haze disaster in Indonesia was in 2015 and the pollution had a major impact on neighboring Malaysia and Singapore — researchers say it might’ve contributed to up to 100,000 deaths.

In fact, even during the height of that climate calamity, Indonesia considered but ultimately backed down from declaring a national emergency regarding the the 2015 haze fires. And no other conflagrations have come that close since, fortunately.

However, there have been several fires that have been declared “emergencies” by regional government in the last three years. During the 2018 haze season, for example, South Sumatra, Riau, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan all declared emergency alert statuses due to large scale fires in their regions.

To be fair, Jokowi’s administration has made some great strides in handling the haze problem. As the president pointed out in the debate, strict law enforcement has helped reduce the number of fires and made pulp and palm oil plantation companies more careful due to the potential for massive government fines, like the IDR18.3 trillion (US$1.29 billion) collectively imposed on 11 plantation companies that were found guilty of causing environmental destruction (although Greenpeace recently delivered a report saying most of those fines remain unpaid).

But the president should still be more careful about making such overstatements, especially considering that the fires that have occurred over the last three years have caused a great deal of destruction, death and hardship for many Indonesians. The situation may be getting better, but to imply it doesn’t exist any more is wrong.

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