The COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced pollution levels as it forces people to stay at home and restrict their outdoor activities, leaving the Earth in its best condition in decades.
However, the risk of deforestation continues in Indonesia amid the pandemic due to weak enforcement of government restrictions in containing the outbreak, leaving the possibility of land-burning still open, environmentalists warn.
While several urbanised regions such as Jakarta, West Java and Banten have enforced large-scale social distancing aimed at flattening the COVID-19 infection curve, loose monitoring in rural areas may trigger farmers to choose slash-and-burn options to clear lands.
Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, told Reuters: “My concern is that social distancing and lockdowns may not be monitored and implemented as strictly in the rural areas.”
Another green activist cautioned that companies may take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their lands.
“We are concerned that companies may take advantage of the lockdown and see it as an opportunity to expand and clear forest. No one should take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis for their gain,” Arie Rompas from Greenpeace Indonesia told Reuters.
South Sumatera urges residents to prepare for dry season in May
Cognisant of the risks of clearing land by burning during the pandemic, the South Sumatera province has called on all residents to prevent forest fires from taking place as the country’s meteorologist and climatology agency predicted that dry season will occur in May.
Early action is needed to protect forest damage from natural causes, said Hairun Sobri, Executive Director at Indonesia’s Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia or Walhi South Sumatera chapter.
Pandji Tjahjanto from the province’s Forestry Office said that 700,000 hectares of forest land in the province had been in critical condition due to illegal logging and land conversion.
The South Sumatera Administration has allocated Rp 37 billion (S$3.39 million) for possible forest fires in the most vulnerable areas, ANTARA reported.
Forest fires amid the pandemic
Separately, the Provincial Disaster Mitigation Agency on Monday (20 April) had put out forest fires in two locations in West Kotawaringin in Central Kalimantan, local media outlet ProSampit reported.
Residents of Pasir Panjang Village in the South Arut Subdistrict may have deliberately cleared lands in two locations at the same time, the agency said.
“The burnt area was around one hectare. When we arrived, the flame had destroyed most of the land.
“We can predict that we had put out the fire half a hectare. Now, we have put out the fire thoroughly,” said Kobar Sayid Abdul Badawi on behalf of the agency.
From January to September last year, such fires had destroyed 857,756 hectares of land in Indonesia, according to official data.
Land-burning — as the cheapest option to clear land for agriculture and farming — alongside drought and the palm oil industry is often blamed for causing the country’s rapid deforestation.