The ongoing pandemic caused by the Corona Virus, also known as Covid-19, is likely to only worsen this year’s forest and ground fires in Indonesia, as economic pressure may push farmers to open land by burning while the prevalent social and physical distancing may make it more difficult to prevent and control the fires, officials said.
In an online seminar on “Anticipating the Impact of Forest Fires, Smoke Haze and Covid-19” organized by Landscape Indonesia on Wednesday, the Head of the Sintang District in West Kalimantan, Jarot Winarno, said that the Covid-19 Pandemic was causing economic hardship for people in his district as the price of their main agricultural crops – oil palm, rubber and pepper – all took a hit because of the resulting economic slowdown.
“A situation such as this will become a trigger, a driving push for the inland people in Sintang, to have no other option but to burn their land. So, the most serious impact of the Corona (virus) that we may experience is a higher drive to burn land, for slash and burn,” said Winarno.
West Kalimantan is one of the hardest hit by the annual forest and ground fires that usually comes with the dry season, especially towards the end when people prepare their land for a new planting cycle. The fires burned some 2.6 million hectares of forest and land in 2019, the province’s police chief has said, adding that it was the biggest fires disaster there for the past five years.
Winarno said that Sintang District has a total of 925,585 hectares in forest cover. Data on areas razzed by fires in Sintang in 2019 were not available but Winarno in September declared a two-week forest and ground fire emergency status after the number of hotspots peaked to more than 600 in a day in mid-September and caused widespread health hazard.
Although he said his administration was now fully prepared to better handle the fires in this year’s dry season, which the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said promised to be even dryer than last year, he also said that his district now also had a “new forest and ground fire norm.”
“Under our new norm, we will still have smoke, but we want it to be limited and controlled,” he said.
He explained that under a regulation he had issued in 2018 that was later revised in 2020, customary communities in Sintang would still be able to practice slash and burn if they were to clear land for traditional crops and for land of under two hectares. “If they burn land to plant oil palm, we will arrest. If they burn to plant pepper, we will arrest but if they burn land to plant local commodities such as rice, cucumber or string beans… we will accommodate and regulate,” Winarno said.
He said this policy was a form of recognition to local wisdom.
Meanwhile, Deputy District Chief of Musi Banyuasin Beni Hernedi, addressing the same online seminar, said that compared to 2019 when the district’s forest and fires prevention in his district “can be categorized as successful,” the administration was more prepared for this year’s fires.
He said that with the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities were much more able to monitor the coming and going of people into and out of a region,
He said that the most serious fires in his district last year were mostly in sub-district with a high prevalence of peat soil and also situated bordering with neighboring district or province, He said most of the fires in those regions were done by people from neighboring regions to open land in Musi Banyuasin.
“But we also have a weakness, it is certain that we would not be able to like Musi Banyuasin was in 2019, with such a high level of preparedness,” Hernedi said.
In a Covid-19 situation like now, he said he was worried that the district would not be able to be as prepared and effective in preventing and battling forest and ground fires because the stakeholders possibly had to work from home and there was a strict health protocol to follow.
“So, I can imagine how can we move people like we did in 2019? Because of this Covid, we cannot do our best,” Hernedi said.