Stop blaming others, just start acting

Indonesia: Fires: Stop blaming others, just start acting!

13 September 2002

Each year, from February to March and August to October, the haze thatdisrupts social and economic activities in Indonesia also brings with itconflicting accusations of blame. The game of allocating blame for the firesthat cause haze repeats itself as regularly as the fires themselves.

But it’s time to stop blaming and start acting. Existing technology makestheidentification of the hot spots easy. The Bogor-based CIFOR has comparedsatellite information from the U.S. National Oceanographic and AtmosphericAgency with Indonesian land-use maps. CIFOR’s research clearly shows thatmore than three-quarters of the hot-spots recorded in West and CentralKalimantan in during August occurred in oil palm plantations, timberplantations and forest concessions.

So, what action is needed to address the fire problems?

First, we need to recognize there are different types of fires and that notall fires are problematic. There are fires that generate significant amountsof haze and those that generate much less.

There are land-clearing fires lit on purpose for the establishment ofplantations, which do not create significant haze if they are not on peatland. And there are fires burning out of control in areas that are supposedto be maintained as forests, such as those that occurred in East Kalimantanin 1997/1998.

These critical differences are not recognized in the Indonesian legislation(Regulation 4/2001) that forbids all forest and land fires. The legislationshould be reviewed so that only harmful and unwanted fires are banned. Inthis way, the limited resources available to prevent and suppress firescouldbe used to for the really problematic fires. Certainly, this is not arevolutionary recommendation. Malaysia and other countries allow prescribedfires.

Burning peat land contributed up to 90 percent of the smoke haze experiencedduring the catastrophic fires in 1997-1998. We are seeing the same thinghappening again in 2002. Over 75 percent of the hot spots identified on peatland in West and Central Kalimantan in August were on oil palm plantations,timber plantations and forest concessions.

Media reports have regularly cited how the smoke haze is particularlyaffecting Pontianak. This is hardly surprising as Pontianak is almostsurrounded by peat lands and oil palm and timber plantations. Just as thegovernment has already legislated against the development of lands with peatdeeper than three meters, so should it legislate against the use of firesforland-clearing on peat lands .

But just changing the laws won’t blow away the haze. The laws need to beenforced, and this is not occurring. This is not because fires are difficultto monitor and police. The fires now occurring in Indonesia are usuallydescribed as “forest fires”, giving the impression they areburning in remoteand inaccessible areas. But this is not true. The fact that over 75 percentof the hot spots identified on peat land in West and Central Kalimantan wereon oil palm plantations, timber plantations and forest concessions meansthatthere are roads to access the areas. Inspections by government officials andthe collection of evidence to prosecute those using fire illegally areviable.

Once the law is revised, the government must take firm action againstcompanies that use fire illegally. This would show the government is seriousin enforcing the legislation and in implementing the recently signed ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Agreement on Transboundary HazePollution. The government also needs to get tough with officials who seek togain by turning a blind eye to illegal burning activities.

While at the moment it is clear that large companies are mostly responsiblefor the fires and haze currently affecting the region, this does notnecessarily mean large companies will always be the only ones responsible.The 1997-1998 experience shows that at least in some areas such as SouthSumatra and East Kalimantan, small-scale livelihood activities by villagersin peat swamp areas were responsible for some of the haze-generating fires.

Dealing with these sources of ignition will be even more complex than withthose involving large companies. Small-scale livelihood activities byfarmersand squatters are more disperse than those of companies, more difficult tomonitor, and legislated changes to burning practices are virtuallyimpossibleto enforce. In these cases, only community-based initiatives have anylikelihood of succeeding.

So, what are the costs of inaction?

According to a new CIFOR report funded by the European Commission, smokehazein 1997-1998 affected millions of people and cost Indonesia and itsneighborsaround US $800 million.

In addition to economic and social costs from smoke haze in 1997-1998, firescost $2.5 billion to Indonesia, arising from burnt timber and other losses.Of this, East Kalimantan suffered losses totaling $2 billion. The figure forthis season is not likely to be as high. Nevertheless, the question remains,how high must it be before the Indonesian government, industry, NGOs andcommunity groups begin working together to halt this environmental, economic
and social disaster?


By Luca Tacconi, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor
Source: The Jakarta Post


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