Presidents Obama and Widodo Meet as Indonesia Fires Continue to Burn

When President Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo meet, they will have plenty on their plate, including security issues, business concerns in Indonesia and geopolitics around China and beyond. High on the list will be climate change with the negotiations in full swing ahead of the Paris climate conference in December. A related, unexpected issue should also be on their radar: massive forest and land fires that have turned from a regional to a global crisis for the new Indonesian administration.

The fires in Indonesia are truly out of control, having spiked to their highest levels last week in years. Nearly 300,000 Indonesians have sought medical help for respiratory illnesses linked to the choking haze. Air pollution is up to five times higher than World Health Organization's hazardous levels. Schools and airports have been closed. The Indonesian government has already spent about $200 million to fight the fires and recently accepted help from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. Yet, this year's fires will likely keep burning for at least another month. The total economic costs may exceed $14 billion.

Further, the fires, which are largely burning on high-carbon peatland, have caused a spike in greenhouse gas emissions. New analysis finds several days recently where greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia's fires surpassed the daily level of emissions of the entire U.S. economy.

Sadly, land fires in Indonesia do not occur naturally. They are largely the result of a history of destructive land management, poor law enforcement, and inadequate preparation, combined with bad luck with an extended dry season caused by the El Niño now upsetting weather patterns globally.

When the presidents meet, they should work together to respond to this crisis and moreover reduce the risk of future fires. The U.S. can support better land management in Indonesia by encouraging responsible market forces and financial incentives, providing technical and scientific support, and advancing innovative technology.

By working together, the U.S. can strengthen its ties with Indonesia, which is the second largest democracy in Asia and has the fourth largest population in the world.

First, the United States can join global efforts to encourage more sustainable production of commodities like timber, pulp and paper and palm oil. There's emerging evidence that company concessions certified as "sustainable" by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil have a markedly lower number of fires. Strong certification standards also exist for other products, including wood and paper. Consumers in the U.S., including the government, buy vast quantities of paper, packaging and products containing palm oil - which is found in everything from shampoo to candy bars - and could give preference to manufacturers that source certified materials. This would send a signal to producers in Indonesia who manage vast areas of land. An even bolder move could be for the U.S. to join Norway in contributing "pay for performance" incentives if Indonesia achieves key milestones in better managing their forests and reducing emissions.

Second, the U.S. government could expand technical support to Indonesia, such as current projects by the U.S. Agency for International Development, on land use management and emissions reductions. Land conflict is often an underlying condition of fires in Indonesia. More resources are needed for Indonesia's "One Map" initiative to resolve land conflicts by creating a single consistent and harmonized map of land use and ownership for all government agencies. In addition, Indonesia needs support to better monitor their emissions from peat soil decomposition and burning needs. One idea would be to create competition for funding among U.S. and Indonesian universities to find creative solutions to these knotty technical challenges.

Third, more U.S. support in technology should be marshalled. Leading technology companies, including Google, Esri and satellite-operator Digital Globe, are already assisting by providing technology and expertise to Global Forest Watch, a platform, coordinated by WRI, which provides real time maps and updates on the fires. An electronic permitting system in Indonesia would be extremely useful to streamline the murky world of licenses and maps for palm oil, pulpwood and logging concessions, which together cover more than half of Indonesia's forest land. Government, business and civil society should work together to develop procedures and systems for transparent, corruption-free land use licensing.

The timing of this visit between Presidents Obama and Widodo is fortuitous. President Obama, of course, is very familiar with Indonesia, having spent some of his childhood years in the country. Now, these two leaders have a chance to deepen a partnership that will improve the health of Indonesians, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance sustainable commodity production and lead to a healthier world for us all.

This post is co-authored with Fred Stolle, Senior Associate, WRI's Forest Program, based in Washington D.C. and Nirarta Samadhi, the Director of WRI Indonesia, based in Jakarta.

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