When the Indonesian Smoke Clears

As the monsoonal rains set in and the forest fires around western Indonesia begin to dissipate, we ask ourselves: how can we prevent such a massive outbreak of fires from happening again? As much as we would like to blame someone for the fires, the answers in reality are never that easy. Preventing and controlling forest and peat fires in Indonesia will require myriad collective efforts involving local governments, companies and smallholder communities.

In Indonesia, the majority of commercial land use is found on government owned land. These lands are rarely managed as well as they should be. This is especially the case for agricultural commodities, such as palm oil, which are often blamed for being the cause of forest fires, deforestation and social conflicts. Is there a way to ensure that commodities are produced without causing deforestation, degrading peatlands, forest and peatland fires, or seizures of indigenous lands?

Across the world, there have been many efforts to ensure that commodities are grown sustainably. One of these initiatives is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international standard for ensuring that palm oil is produced sustainably. RSPO certification currently covers around 20 per cent of all palm oil produced globally. The RSPO standard is applied to individual mills and their suppliers. In this regard, it is difficult to prevent or control fires across an entire District or Province through RSPO certification, since fires are a landscape problem, often ignited by one actor then spreading into neighbouring production systems.

We need to do more. Could the momentum that is building to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably become the basis for bigger, regional solutions to deforestation, forest fires and social conflicts?

Earth Innovation Institute, along with our sister institute, Institut Penelitian Inovasi Bumi (INOBU), have been piloting a unique initiative promoting sustainable supply chains at the jurisdictional level. A jurisdiction is a formal political geography, which can include subnational areas such as states, districts and provinces. The approach builds upon the “mill-by-mill” approach to addressing issues of sustainability in a larger administrative area.

Next week, at the thirteenth Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the jurisdictional approach to sustainability will be discussed for the first time. At the meeting, the government of Seruyan District in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, will declare its commitment to having all palm oil produced in the district certified as sustainable. As part of this declaration, the district government will also sign a Memorandum of Understanding with several companies operating in the district to work together to achieve sustainable palm oil production. The initiative for certification at the level of jurisdictions is also a first for the RSPO.

Jurisdictional certification is a model that can be eventually applied to other commodities or multiple commodities. Through using these approaches, we will not only ensure that there are mechanisms in place for preventing and managing fire, but also, that people in the district will be motivated to prevent forest fires to maintain their sustainability certification.