Riau, Indonesia — The practice of slash and burn to clear land in Indonesia has been identified as one of the main causes of smoke haze in the region.
However, there are environmentally friendly ways to do so.
Brad Sanders is the Fire, Health and Safety Manager of Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), one of the world’s leading pulp and paper manufacturers.
As its estate extends over 96,000 hectares – most of which is for growing acacia trees for wood to make pulp – detecting such fires is no mean feat.
Although APRIL does not practice slash and burn practices, the company says that more than 100 fires had been detected on its land since the beginning of the year.
But most of these fires were started by sparks from fires in neighbouring land, caused by farmers who clear the land illegally.
APRIL however, acknowledges that about 40 percent of fires on its land are started by cigarette butts thrown carelessly by its workers and trespassers, or cooking fires that were not properly extinguished by its workers on the plantation.
That’s when its firefighters come in, putting out the fires with lightweight equipment that can be moved and carried around easily.
APRILs target is to extinguish the fires within one hour, so that it does not spread and cause damage to its plantation.
“It’s very important to minimise fires in our area because we don’t want any losses to our plantations. Its high costs to develop our plantation and we need this wood for pulp production, so we do not want to see this go up in smoke. We do not want any burnt material in our pulping process and we want to preserve soil nutrients by returning elements of the tree like the branches and bark back to the soil,” says Brad Sanders, Fire, Health & Safety Manager of Riaupulp, APRIL Group.
It is also working with the Indonesian government to educate the community on the hazards of burning land.
“We do all we can to support government efforts by maintaining a no-burn practices on our own land and assisting the government with their fire suppression efforts as well,” says Sanders.
“We cooperate with them by sharing with them our procedures. We send crews to assist them in fire-fighting efforts in different parts of Riau, and we share ideas and equipment. We hope that through this, we can develop a better fire management system throughout Riau.”
The practice of slash and burn to clear land is illegal in Indonesia but small farmers usually carry out this technique to prepare for the cultivation of palm trees, which can be lucrative business as they can be harvested within 6 months of being grown.
Burning is the cheapest and quickest way to clear the land.
The alternative is to use heavy machinery – a technique used by APRIL – which costs about US$250 to clear one hectare of land, a step which small farmers can’t afford.
Green groups have been urging for more political will to fight forest fires, as haze has been a problem for neighbouring countries, disrupting air traffic and causing health problems.
The Indonesian president has recently pledged to tackle the problem and ordered police to severely punish those caught for forest fires.