During the second half of 1997 and early 1998, forest and land fires in Indonesia have dominated our daily news and conversations. Their extensive effects on neighbouring countries as well as to the global environment have been the concerns of the world-wide community. The handling of the so-called “haze” or biomass-burning problem requires a long-term, systematic and holistic approach that addresses the underlying drivers or such events are likely to occur again and again. The recent national and regional economic turbulence should not distract our efforts to find both technical and policy-wise solutions.
Fire has been used as part of the management tool in land preparation, practised by smallholder farmers for centuries. The practise is very much oriented on crop rotation, rather than land rotation, meaning that near-natural canopy cover and sustainability of soil fertility may be expected in such a relatively small-scale operation. This is particularly important for tropical environment where destructive effects of torrential rains are often encountered.
Since the forest logging operations were started in mid 1970s, the scale of land-use change was no longer small. Rotation and selective logging was rarely practised. The activities were dominated by forest conversions for the expansion of agricultural lands, settlements, and tree crop-based large-scale plantations. The logging operators own bigger capital with main objective to extract the timber. The wastes are usually massive and land degradation is very extensive resulting unproductive Imperata grasslands. At the conversions of logged-over forests waste removal is very costly and the easiest and cheapest way is burning. There is no economic instrument attractive enough to reduce waste or legal instrument that is effective enough to punish the destruction of natural resources and the environment.
How fires have been started?
During the Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Project administered by ICRAF and an Indonesian consortium of scientists it was identified that fire can be used as a tool but in some cases it is also used as weapon. In either case fire can escape and be wildly spread, especially when the prolonged dry season occurs.
As a tool fire has been extensively used for many years to clear the lands for traditional agriculture since it is considered as the cheapest and easiest way to do so. In the long fallow rotation of the so-called jungle rubber in Sumatra and Kalimantan fire is also used to remove most of the biomass including the woody parts before new plantations are re-established. There are no incentives to encourage smallholders to process or utilise rubber wood so that less burning will be practised. Instead, various local levies are imposed to rubber wood traders. Moreover, heavy export taxes on sawn rubber timber and other timbers produced by smallholders were introduced in 1989. The taxes, which were intended to promote downstream wood processing, are even higher for less-processed wood. In fact, rubber wood and other woods produced by smallholders are by-products. Indonesia has a large stock of old rubber trees and smallholder farmers own most of them. And yet, since 1993 only less than 30% was used compared with more than 80% in Thailand and over 60% in Malaysia. Unless the disincentives are removed, attractive markets provided, and appropriate wood-processing technologies made accessible, the large portions of smallholder rubber wood will go up in smoke and contribute to haze problems. Economic instruments and appropriate technological tools that increase the income of smallholder farmers and at the same time save the environment are urgently needed.
Fig.1. Scenes like this burned forest conversion site were predominant during the 1997 fire and smoke episode: The amount of plant biomass burned on clearcut forests is much higher than on wildfire-affected sites. Photo: J.G.Goldammer
Many coverages on the transboundary haze by international media have underestimated the underlying social processes. Fire may be deliberately used as a weapon to claim the lands. The actions may be taken by both smallholders and large operators, because the land titling and tenure systems remain unsolved. As soon as crops are introduced smallholders can occupy the lands. Similarly, fire set by large scale development project-related activities can be used to drive the local people out of their lands. Fires can be and have been fully controlled for centuries by those whose ownership is secured. Only in islands or provinces where land ownership is not clear do fires become widespread. Monitoring, prevention, reporting and fighting of fire community level then become a complicated task. It is a high time to think of the reconciliation between the traditional adat laws and the official agrarian laws.
During the fire-prone period dry fuels are readily ignited and lead to large wild fires. Accidentally spread fires, however, may have the same underlying socio-economic and institutional problems. In cases like this fire suppression can be very difficult and costly, especially when they reach peat-swamp areas. The smouldering smoke may last for quite a long time, blanketing the region and choking its population. The economic impacts and ecological consequences caused by the smoke and haze have been a pronounced disaster of the century
The great Indonesian fires are always associated with the El Niño events. This is an oceanographic phenomenon when a strong and extensive warming occurs in the upper ocean in the tropical eastern Pacific. This is linked with a change in atmospheric pressure known as the Southern Oscillation, and the overall phenomenon is often called ENSO. The typical global impacts of ENSO is the anomaly pattern of rainfall and temperature. Rainfall is shifted eastward from Indonesia to the central Pacific causing a prolonged dry and hot weather in the archipelago, the Philippines and northern Australia.
Much speculation and many misconceptions have been built around the fire issues and the El Niño phenomena. Those who want to escape from the incompetence or negligence in using fire would find El Niño as a scapegoat. On the other hand the increasing frequency and intensity of El-Niño has been wildly speculated with climate change theory and global warming issues. During the recent COP3 in Kyoto December 1997 (3rd Session of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCC), Kyoto, 1-10 December 1997), WMO released an Update that addresses the questions and concerns of an audience that ranges from the general public to the policy makers. The document does not confirm that El-Niño is associated with the increased of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.
Quantitative expressions like Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) may be explored and used as a precautionary indicator for land clearing management or prescribed burning.
Transboundary haze pollution
The term transboundary pollution has become not only a technical term but also political. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) a Working Group on Transboundary Pollution was formed under the ASEAN Senior Officer on Environment (ASOEN) a few years ago. Following an ASOEN Meeting in August 1997 the Haze Technical Force was commissioned to formulate Regional and National Haze Action Plans. The plans are expected to meet the following objectives: (1) to prevent land and forest fires through better management policies and enforcement; (2) to establish operational mechanisms to monitor land and forest fires; and (3) to strengthen regional land and forest fires fighting capability and other mitigating measures. Various meetings and plans have been exercised under this important body in order to solve the problems.
The Regional Technical Assistant (RETA), ADB-funded activities will be launched to design the plans. In addition numerous technical assistance from donors/bilateral projects and studies by various organisations are being coordinated by the host countries. Most of these activities take place in Indonesia (see contribution by ASEAN on p.13 of this issue).
Looking into the future
The forest and land fires are not over, they will return. Therefore, there must be forward planning to manage fires and haze. International efforts and more importantly national resources should be optimised and strategies are needed to develop long term and comprehensive solutions. To a large extent fire is still needed. It is almost impossible to ban the use of fire, especially for the smallholders. A kind of prescription may be devised. Zero-burning land clearing or techniques that produce less smoke must be explored and implemented by large operators. It is too naive to neglect the long-standing land claim, especially by those who have been occupying the land inherited for centuries. Recognising the adat right will greatly minimise the conflicts over land allocation. Removing disincentives to smallholder timber production will not only alleviate poverty, but also save the environment.
Fire is not a mere technical problem. It is a complex socio-economic, cultural, as well as institutional problems that require a holistic and integrated approach and long-term strategies.
From: Daniel Murdiyarso Programme Head, BIOTROP-GCTE Southeast Asian Impacts Centre (IC-SEA) Address: SEAMEO BIOTROP, Jalan Raya Tajur, Km 6 P.O.Box 116 Bogor 16143 INDONESIA