The Jakarta Post
We write with a strong sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. Over 10 years ago, one of us published a letter in The Jakarta Post titled Fires: stop blaming others, just start acting! The cause of the haze that is affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore has not changed since then; it is clear: Plantation companies deliberately light fires in degraded peatland areas on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.
They use fire because it is the cheapest way to clear land. But, in particularly dry years, the peat below ground also catches fire and it continues to smolder for months, generating thick and noxious haze. It can quickly cause headaches, nausea and respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly.
In that letter, we identified that fire was being used not only as a tool to clear land cheaply but also as a weapon to claim property ownership when Indonesia's governance system was more centralized than it is today.
The recurrence of fire and trans-boundary haze was then, and remains today, not only a problem but also a symptom of complex governance issues.
Indonesian politicians and bureaucrats say that fire is a natural phenomenon, like recent major outbreaks of fire in Australia and the United States. It is true that Indonesia's peatl ands experience fires that go out of control in severe El NiÃ±o events. But most of the fires of past decades were deliberately lit by companies or their agents to clear land for the development of plantation crops.
Like they did over ten years ago when we first wrote about this, those politicians and bureaucrats are asking for collaboration in putting out the fires and prosecuting those responsible. However, a commitment to action seems not to persist beyond the haze itself. Indonesia has prosecuted relatively few companies during the past two decades for lighting the fires that choke its own citizens and those of neighboring countries.
There are two clear starting points for Indonesia to demonstrate that it is serious about addressing these fires.
First, it should prosecute the companies that lit the fires; Indonesia has the technology and the enforcement capacity to do so.
Second, it should ratify the ASEAN treaty on trans-boundary haze; its neighbors have been waiting patiently for this over the past twelve years.
Singapore and Malaysia, where many plantation companies operating in Indonesia are based, should also be holding their companies accountable.
By not adequately addressing the issue of fires in peatlands, Indonesia is undermining a commitment made by President Yudoyono to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.
Peatland conversion accounts for about 40 percent of Indonesia's total annual emissions. These emissions are caused not only by fires like those currently burning in Sumatra, but also by the slow decomposition of peat in millions of hectares of degraded areas, which have been drained for different reasons over past decades. Rehabilitating those areas is the best way to prevent fires and peat decomposition, because wet peat does not burn or decompose.
That is a truly major and challenging task, which requires international cooperation, targeted research, innovative practice and a commitment of resources.
One of the first initiatives to address this challenge was supported by Australia, which has been supporting peatland conservation and rehabilitation by funding the Kalimantan Forest Conservation Partnership (KFCP) in an area that was worst affected by the haze of 1997'1998.
This project was intended to demonstrate how to conserve peatlands and rehabilitate degraded ones by blocking a series of canals that had drained the peat for a failed agricultural development project initiated by former President Soeharto.
Unfortunately, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) will be closing down and withdrawing from the project without having had sufficient time and opportunity to demonstrate how to block even a single canal.
This is despite the fact that the engineering plans had passed all the regulatory approval steps (including the environmental impact assessment and extensive community consultation processes), the tenders for the work had been issued, and the relevant Indonesian ministries had asked AusAID to continue the project.
This premature termination of KFCP, prompted by political opposition to the project by some Australian politicians, means that the basic field research necessary to reduce future haze events is likely to be lost. It also means that Indonesian policy makers, land managers and peatland communities are left without practical strategies for rehabilitating cleared peatlands. Perhaps the visit next month of Australia's Prime Minister with Indonesia's President will offer Indonesia an opportunity to ask Australia to review that decision.
Transboundary haze is a transboundary issue. Each of Indonesia and its immediate neighbors have important roles to play in addressing it. We hope they will do so more effectively now than in the past.
Daniel Murdiyarso is professor of atmospheric sciences, Institute of Bogor Agriculture (IPB), and principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor. Luca Tacconi is professor of environmental governance at the Crawford school of public policy, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.