- Indonesian NGO Pantau Gambut has attempted to push a palm-fire narrative with multiple incorrect claims;
- This has been run uncritically in international media outlets such as France24;
- The claims aren’t even supported by data from anti-palm groups such as Greenpeace
Several weeks ago as the region’s dry season dragged on, the usual cadre of NGOs and anti-palm campaigners issued their annual message: a catastrophic haze is upon the region, and it has been caused by palm oil.
But, as in previous years, the ‘catastrophic’ haze simply hasn’t emerged.
This year has been a particular test for the region; as El Nino has meant an extended dry season, the fire risks have increased.
The wet season has now commenced and fire risks have fallen. So what actually happened during the fire season in 2023??
Hotspots peaked at the beginning of October – as is usual – with a number slightly higher than the annual average. They have since fallen. By way of indication, on October 30 this year, there were around 405 hotspots. On the same day in Brazil there were more than 3,000.
In Indonesia, the largest areas for fires were in Central Kalimantan.
Despite this, NGOs – particularly Indonesia’s Pantau Gambut — have attempted to claim that this year’s fire season has been catastrophic. One of the most notable pieces of coverage was in France 24, which uncritically ran Pantau Gambut’s claims. We go through these below:
Claim: More than 14,000 fires were recorded in August. This isn’t supported by data, even from Greenpeace. The more useful metric for fires is a moving average of hotspots; a hotspot recorded on different days may be the same fire outbreak. According to Greenpeace, the 10-day moving average for hotspots was around 300 per day across all of Indonesia. Theoretically this means – at most – around 9,000 hotspots across the entire month. This in itself doesn’t represent the number of fires on the ground.
Claim: “Some of these palm oil companies start fires so they can clear the land and start a plantation there, because it is the cheapest method.” This is simply not true. For palm oil companies, suppression and stopping of fires is costly – much more costly than clearing lands legally. It is well understood that although fires may occur on plantation land, it is not large companies that start those fires.
Claim: “Out of 126,146 fires that began between July 1 and September 3, 2023, 27.5% were within palm oil concessions.” This islikely to be the case, but also prompts question about the remaining three-quarters of the fires occurring in Indonesia. Again, it’s well known that pulpwood plantations are a significant cause of fires in Indonesia, and that there is a large occurrence of fire within conservation areas. So, are NGOs actually pointing the finger at the right actor?
Claim: “Pantau Gambut identified 675 fires that began in a palm oil concession belonging to PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan, in the province of West Kalimantan.” The hotspots may exist, but there are questions around the existence of PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan (PT MKK) as an entity. According to several NGO and supplier reports, PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan hasn’t undertaken any business operations since 2016.
Claim: Plantations have been set up on land burned [on PT MKK land] during the fires in 2015. That’s not what was supposed to happen to these lands – the palm oil companies were supposed to restore them to their natural state, at the request of the government. There are two problems with this additional claim. First, if PT MKK no longer operates, then the claim of establishing plantations is invalid. Second, in all likelihood, the plantations have been established illegally by local communities, who simply may have seen the land as vacant.
Pantau Gambut’s work and claims here are generally inaccurate; the fact that French media have gone on to publish those claims without adequate checking discredits both France24 and the NGO.
As we pointed out earlier this year:
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on global fires which concluded that wildfires are a widespread issue with multiple complex causes. Featuring contributions from dozens of independent experts from around the world, the report says, “From Australia to Canada, the U.S. to China, across Europe and the Amazon, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the environment”. The report also highlights that trying to provide simplistic solutions is a mistake: there are none.
The possible causes of fires around the world are being recognised as varied and complex, including faulty power lines, extended dry weather caused by climate change, non-native grassland species, poor forest management, and many more. What is clear is that the cause is not palm oil (Hawaii, California and Canada, for example, produce no palm oil. And yet they have wildfires.).
Activists who blame everything on palm oil ignore such complexity and the scientific facts. Instead, their finger-pointing leads to reasons like “company activities”.
Pantau Gambut is a coalition of NGOs, which also includes the involvement of major international NGO World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI has undertaken some valuable work in Indonesia, but if they seek to maintain their credibility they should consider their associations closely.