Following record-breaking air pollution across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, ministers from five Southeast Asian countries will meet in Kuala Lumpur this week for urgent talks on combating the haze.
New analysis of the patterns and causes of the fires in Sumatra that caused the haze highlights serious issues at the kickoff of this 15th meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution.
The new analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI), which has been closely monitoring the fires since they began, highlights four key challenges that should help set the agenda for the Ministers of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Thailand.
First, pulpwood and oil palm concessions have a more significant role in the fires that we earlier thought. WRI’s analysis shows that that the number of fire alerts per hectare, in other words their density, is three to four times higher within pulpwood and oil palm concession boundaries than outside those boundaries.
In other words, the companies and their land played an important role in the fire and haze episode and they should take greater responsibility in helping prevent future fires.
This conclusion is based on analysis of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s databases of maps together with NASA fire alert data observed from space.
Second, however, there are significant discrepancies between the Ministry of Forestry’s maps and those being used by the companies themselves.
Company “Business Land Use Rights” license boundaries (or in Indonesian, Hak Guna Usaha — HGU), made available to WRI, are generally nested within and smaller than the concession boundaries the government is using.
This is creating confusion about responsibility for fires found on land thought to be within concessions but outside areas the companies fully control and are directly developing.
Third, about two thirds of the fires appear to have been on peatland. This heightens concern since fires on peat, with its richness of combustible organic matter stretching deep into the soil, are far more serious from both a human health and environmental perspective than those on non-peat soils. Peat fires release larger amounts of smoke, haze, other pollutants and greenhouse gases. They can burn on for weeks or even months.
Fourth and most importantly, there is a high risk of repeated fire and haze crises in the coming months and years.
The fires of June 2013 were not an unusual event. We can see from the historical record that while a large number of fire alerts occurred this June, there have, in fact, been two worse periods in the last decade, occurring in 2005 and 2006.
The record levels of smog experienced in Singapore and Malaysia this year were the result of shifting wind patterns, not unusually high levels of forest fires.
In other words, forest fires in Indonesia are part of a long-standing, endemic problem — one that calls for a coordinated and comprehensive solution.
What can the ministers do to address these challenges?
Interestingly, they already seem to know. According to the official media release from their previous meeting, held a year-and-a-half ago in Bali, they agreed that, “digital geo-referenced concession maps” should be shared between the governments, “to hold plantation companies and land owners responsible.”
They also noted that, “greater transparency is required to make plantation companies and land owners more accountable,” and that member states should “undertake more deterrent and effective enforcement measures against offenders.”
The ministers should now redouble efforts and agree on more precise and urgent next steps, together with clear milestones of progress for the public to monitor.
More specific actions include immediately prioritizing and accelerating the Indonesian government’s highly strategic “One Map Initiative.”
This effort is creating an authoritative single database to clarify concession boundaries and ownerships for the entire country, but is expected to take another three years to complete.
Sumatra’s Riau province, where most of the fires were seen, should be prioritized and mapped much more quickly.
The resulting maps should also be made freely available to the public in digital format so that they can easily be used for independent analysis and monitoring of fires and forest clearing, as well as to support law enforcement.
Similar information should also be shared by other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, which has also seen a significant number of fire alerts recently in Sarawak.
In the meantime, existing government and company maps, which have not been made public, should be released.
On the enforcement side, the ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia should commit to work together on the investigation of any crimes that may have been committed.
While the bulk of the police work needs to be done in Indonesia, some of the larger companies now under suspicion also have strong ties to Singapore and Malaysia.
The governments of these countries should look for ways to hold the companies accountable for the damage inflicted on their people.
The neighboring governments can also help Indonesia to unravel complex ownership structures of the companies since many arms-length subsidiaries also seem to be implicated.
Top national and local officials as well as corporate executives and community leaders should also get together to see what practical steps they can take in unison to more quickly address land conflict.
In the immediate term they can also pool their monitoring and fire-fighting capabilities to be ready to respond much more quickly when dry weather and fire alerts rear their ugly heads again.
Meanwhile longer term intensive efforts are needed to work with local landowners and communities to ensure that mechanical land clearing, rather than fire, is the tool of choice for preparing farm land, as well as effectively preventing illegal encroachment and burning especially on peatland.
The ministerial meeting in Malaysia is an opportunity to make rapid progress. The ministers should agree on a more precise plan where concession data is consistent between government agencies and companies, is made public, criminal burning of forests is investigated and prosecuted, and better management practices are instituted across the region’s forest lands.
Now it is up to the people of the region to hold the officials’ feet to the fire to ensure this urgent call is not ignored.
The writer leads the forests team at World Resources Institute, an independent global think tank with offices in Washington DC and around the world.
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