With the forest fires still raging on parts of the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, damaging the tropical environment, while the toxic haze still spreads to other parts of Southeast Asia, having caused an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infection as well as 19 casualties, the ongoing disaster has been labelled a crime against humanity. A new and interesting research report, released by Dr. Herry Purnomo (scientist at the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research), points to a link between local elections and spikes in Indonesian forest fires.
Purnomo states that over the past decade forest fires tend to spike prior to and just after local elections as candidates (cooperating with local businessmen) give land (or the right to use land) to local voters (possibly to village heads who then turn to local residents) in exchange for support. Moreover, the country's notorious weak law enforcement provides further support for this situation.
This year, Indonesia will see more than 250 local elections (scheduled for 9 December 2015). Obtaining local power is highly lucrative as the person gains access to central government funds and has the power to hand out licenses to businesses (for example in the mining and agriculture sectors). Every five years, Indonesia organizes local and central legislative (and presidential) elections. Since the end of Suharto's authoritarian New Order period and the start of the Reformation era, decentralization has given considerable power to the regions, away from the central government. Together with power, corruption was decentralized as well.
According to reports circulating in media, the ongoing fires (which started in July) have ruined more than 2 million hectares of valuable forests and peat land. The Indonesian government estimates that the costs could be as high as USD $40 billion. Meanwhile, Greenpeace stated that the forest fires occur on land owned by some 2,000 pulpwood, palm oil and coal mining companies. The World Resources Institute released data in September claiming that over 37 percent of the fires on Sumatra occur on land concessioned to pulpwood companies and a good proportion of the rest occur on - or near - land used by palm oil companies.
Particularly expansion of Indonesia's palm oil and pulp & paper industries is behind deforestation and the devastating fires. The slash-and-burn practice, a seasonal phenomenon, is the cheapest way to clear land with few to none legal consequences as Indonesia's law enforcement is weak (even though existing laws make the slash-and-burn practice illegal). These companies are also the cause of the lower water table as they build roads and networks of canals that drain peat swamps, hence increasing the risk of fire.
Meanwhile, the El Nino weather phenomenon exacerbated the forest fires as it brings severe drought to Southeast Asia. In Indonesia the dry season typically lasts from May to August. However, due to El Nino it took until October-November to see some rain in the country.