Conservationists and academics in Riau have urged the central government to save remaining peatland areas to prevent fires and the recurrence of haze, as the long dry season approaches.
Riau University Disaster Studies Center director Haris Gunawan said the haze, that affected Riau annually, indicated the failure of economic development approaches in managing and utilizing peatland.
'Material damage from forest and peatland fires in 2014 amounted to Rp 15 trillion [US$1.3 billion]. As many as 2,398 hectares [ha] of forest biosphere were razed, while 21,914 ha of forest were burned and 58,000 people suffered haze-related illnesses. Around Rp 150 billion in state funds was spent on fire control,' Haris said during a discussion in Pekanbaru.
Surveys conducted in four haze-prone regencies ' Bengkalis, Meranti, Siak and Rokan Hilir ' indicated that the fires were dominant in dried peatland areas as a result of canalization.
'Riau is home to more than 4 million ha of peatland that retain a tremendous volume of water. Peat as thick as three meters can retain up to 2,700 millimeters of water, equivalent to a year's rainfall. However, development policies do not favor peatland,' said Haris.
'Peatland, which acts as a climate controller and carbon collector, has been overlooked by the government and concession holders, whereas in fact drier peatland increases the potential for fires,' said Haris.
Another potential threat, he went on, was the damage of peatland along the coastline.
'If it dries up and the water level drops, sea water intrusion reaches further inland. If the sea level rose, Riau would vanish,' he added.
Haris also revealed the outcome of a direct observation in Tanjung Leban village, Bukti Batu district, Bengkalis, which proved that burning dry peatland could not be completely extinguished.
The most practical and efficient method of protecting peatland, he said, was watering it by blocking existing canals.
'We can't create peatland, so don't damage it. We must have a sense of this crisis. Don't let the smog choke us so we all become busy [dousing fires],' he said.
Greenpeace Indonesia spokesperson Yuyun Indradi said the annual forest and peatland fires in Riau were mostly due to plantation companies.
He added that the companies were still carrying out irresponsible practices, such as drying wet peatland.
'Nearly three quarters of hot spots in Riau are in peatland areas and 75 percent of all peatland fires in Indonesia took place in the province, said Yuyun.
'An analysis by Greenpeace experts showed the largest hot spot areas in Riau were found in denuded peatland.'
He urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a concrete policy on peatland protection to end the destructive haze cycle. The President has also been asked to fulfill his promise to cut carbon emissions from the forestry sector.
'The moratorium, which was introduced in May, 2011, has not yet been able to protect peatlands,' he said.
'In February, more than 30 percent of hot spots in Riau were detected in areas that were protected by the moratorium. Of the total number of hot spots in the moratorium, almost 80 percent were detected in peatlands.'
Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Riau chapter executive director Rico Kurniawan said the government's policy, obsessed with boosting crude palm oil production, should also be blamed for the haze disaster.
'The issuance of business permits in peatland areas should be revised. The business permits of companies for concessions located in burned peatland areas must be revoked,' said Rico.
Coordinator of environmental group Riau Forest Rescue Working Network (Jikalahari) Muslim Rasyid has urged the government to strengthen law enforcement as it has proven able to suppress the number of hotspots in Riau.
'When the Riau Police were intense in combating illegal logging in 2007, the number of hotspots in Riau reached the lowest level in the history of the Riau haze disaster which has taken place for 17 years,' said Muslim.