Forest and land fires break out again. Last week, Singaporean and Malaysian governments contacted the Indonesian government to “register their concerns” over the recurring haze problem.
According to news in the region, a number of schools in Malaysia were advised to temporarily close because the haze reached a “hazardous” level and the air pollution index in Singapore also reached unhealthy levels with cases of respiratory problems including asthma increasing significantly.
Fires and the associated haze have not only affected Singapore and Malaysia. Dumai airport in Riau province, in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was closed last Wednesday due to limited visibility.
The residents of Pekanbaru, the capital city of Riau, as reported by this paper, have complained about a thick haze blanketing the city as it has caused a number of health problems, ranging from eye irritations to respiratory infections.
Some Indonesian officials suggested traditional farmers practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were the major culprits of this year’s forest and land fires.
However, as detected by the Modis Terra Aqua satellite, 172 hotspots which were found in Riau during the period between Oct. 18-21 occurred mainly on pulpwood concessions and oil palm oil plantations. Only a small number of hotspots were found in forest and other land.
Forest and land fires occur in many countries around the world such as in the US (in California), Australia, Turkey, Spain, Russia, Greece and countries in Southeast Asia.
When discussing Southeast Asian fires, especially in Sumatra and Borneo, nevertheless, most studies and peer-reviewed journal articles agree that these fires were human induced.
These studies conclude that a combination of plantation and timber companies, unresolved land tenure disputes as well as land clearing by a massive number of individuals are believed to be the main causes of the fires.
Fires and the associated smog are not a new issue in Southeast Asia. Serious fires and haze seasons have recurred, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, in 1982-1983, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997-1998, 2005 and 2006-2007.
At the peak of massive forest and land fires, the amount of hotspots could reach 25,000 to 35,000 in a month. The highest occurred in August 1997 when 37,938 were counted.
This year’s hotspots may be nowhere near the amount of those in 1997-1998, 2005 or 2006-2007, but the manner in which the Indonesian government tackles this problem would indicate its willingness, power, assertiveness and capacity in dealing with bigger challenges of deforestation and peat land conversion.
“Extinguishing” fires in Indonesia is not a simple matter. Conventional suppression approaches — extinguishing fires after they occur — have been proven inadequate.
There is a pressing need for more comprehensive solutions and to address a wider range of concerns
that cut to the heart of political-economy and administrative reforms in the country.
The first critical approach is prevention measures that can minimize the risks of destructive fires, which include a moratorium — i.e. the government stops granting licenses for land clearing on forest and peat lands — and a zero burning policy.
Since deforestation and peat lands clearing and drainage — for logging or to establish plantations and other land uses — very often give way to fires during the dry months, the moratorium is perceived to be an urgent solution to tackle deforestation and fires.
Following the agreement between Norway and Indonesia on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus (REDD+), the Indonesian government appears to be seriously preparing a moratorium on clearing forest and peat lands for two years starting next January.
However, with this year’s fires, the government is required to speed up this process so that the country can have clear regulations, an incentives mechanism, operational guidelines and technical guidance to implement, monitor and enforce the moratorium.
This clarity is needed because policy on a moratorium ought to be translated by different ministries — especially those influential in land use — at the national level and different layers of governments at the provincial or district level.
Some people may take advantage of unclear translation of policies and division of authorities on a moratorium among ministries and different layers of governments. If this is the case, deforestation, peat lands conversion and drainage, and forest and land fires are likely to continue to occur.
This pressure would be alleviated if investors and the private sector could work with the Indonesian authorities and other stakeholders to ensure sustainable practices such as by increasing productivity on existing plantations and developing non-forested land and non-peat land for timber and oil palm plantation expansion.
Timber concessions and oil palm plantations (owned not only by Indonesians but also Malaysians and Singaporeans) can further promote, adopt and implement zero-burning practices and help smallholders to follow suit.
Financial institutions, for instance, could develop robust investment screening policies to discourage high-risk investment patterns leading to deforestation or forest and land fires.
The consumer market can also help by favoring goods which are produced through guaranteed sustainable operations.
Jakarta will host the eighth Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) next month. The RSPO has incorporated the above important interventions in its principles and criteria (P&C) on sustainable palm oil.
RSPO and its members have, therefore, a momentous opportunity to demonstrate: that their P&C, when effectively implemented, can indeed help alleviate the problems of deforestation and fires on the ground.
Finally, the Indonesian government needs to lead swift actions on forest and land fires. However, Indonesia cannot and should not be expected to solve this problem alone.
Collaborative efforts between key countries, partners and players is the key to putting an end to the region’s widespread and recurring haze problems, and keeping its sky clear in the future.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, recipient of the Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award and advisor to WWF-Indonesia on climate and energy. He can be reached at [email protected]