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Jakarta Post

Peatland agency gears up for haze crisis

Peatland agency gears up for haze crisis
Hans Nicholas Jong
Jakarta   ●   Thu, March 10, 2016

Hartono Prawiraatmadja - JP/Jerry Adiguna

The newly established Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), which is tasked with restoring 2 million hectares of damaged peatland over the next five years, is preparing to begin work amid fears of a repeat of the country'€™s chronic haze problem.

The BRG said on Monday that hot spots had been detected in areas where the agency was to carry out restoration, a telltale sign of a looming haze crisis.

'€œ[BRG head] Nazir Foead is currently in Pekanbaru, Riau, to coordinate [the agency'€™s work there],'€ BRG deputy of participation, campaigns and partnerships, Myrna A. Safitri, said during a visit to The Jakarta Post.

In mid-February, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) detected 69 hot spots, including 14 in Riau and six in North Sumatra.

This year, the agency is focusing on four regencies: Pulang Pisau in Central Kalimantan, Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra and Ogan Komering Ilir and Meranti Islands in Riau.

The four regencies were the worst-hit by last year'€™s forest fires, when fires spread across a total of 2.61 million hectares of forest and peatland, resulting in choking haze blanketing numerous areas for a period of five months.

Peat swamps are highly susceptible to fires in the dry season. Anything from a carelessly discarded cigarette butt to a smoldering campfire can cause tinder-dry peat to blaze out of control and, in high winds, spread rapidly. Peat fires are also set deliberately by corporations and small-scale farmers who burn peat brush to clear the land for oil-palm plantations.

If the BRG is successful, uncontrolled peatland infernos will be a thing of the past, according to BRG secretary Hartono Prawiraatmadja.

'€œThe fires will only occur on the surface [of the land], where they'€™re much easier to put out,'€ he said.

With another potential haze crisis approaching, Hartono said that the agency had begun to map out which peatland could be safely used for cultivation and which should be preserved. '€œIn each peat hydrology area, we will analyze and review the land use using light detection and ranging [LiDAR] technology,'€ he said.

'€œThere'€™s no point rewetting in an area that is not the core of peat hydrology area. But we can still do rewetting [before the mapping is finished] in an emergency '€” if we wait to complete the mapping when the area'€™s already burning, it'€™ll be too late,'€ he said.