The haze in Southeast Asia these past couple of months has been truly unimaginable. Burning vegetation and peatlands has been devastating for the health of millions of people, for the global climate, for regional economies, and for education. The scale of this crisis became impossible to ignore. And recently, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has issued strong instructions which if implemented, would help to avoid future disasters of this kind.
There have been varying levels of protection for peatlands over the years. Some areas of peat 3 meters or deeper have been legally protected due to a moratorium enacted in 2011 with limits on the conversion of peatlands and primary forests. However, these new instructions from Jokowi’s administration go further than before, requiring that peatlands that have already been allocated for development by the government can no longer be cleared and drained.
In addition, the instructions aim to ensure that lands that have recently been burned are not planted which would allow bad actors to profit and would further degrade these sensitive soils. Instead, these areas are slated for restoration.
Why this year?
As I mentioned previously, this year was particularly important for many reasons, including the strong El Niño. However, while it may be true that this year’s fires were exacerbated by a long dry season, the fact of the matter is that El Niños have been occurring for hundreds of years. And in 2013, a year with relatively normal climatic conditions, there was a large haze event. Scientists now believe that haze events will be more frequent in the future because of the destruction and draining of peatlands.
The fires and haze this year affected millions of people. But large events in the past have done the same. A haze event in 1997/1998 left the region reeling, but no substantive action was taken to prevent future events. In actuality, there is nothing new about the haze this year, except for maybe its scale and a new administration. It unfortunately took a tragedy of this proportion to get the Indonesian government to become serious about protecting their carbon-rich peatlands, but I hope that it never has to occur again.
Not there yet
The steps that Jokowi’s administration has outlined are moving in the right direction. However, while the first steps have been laid out, they are not yet law. The success of this directive is dependent upon having the force of law and subsequently allocating adequate resources to ensure peatlands are protected, rewetted, and are not allowed to endanger the health of citizens of Southeast Asia and the global climate.