SINGAPORE: Although monsoon season approaches at the end of November, Southeast Asia will still face the effects of illegal deforestation techniques from companies and land owners in Indonesia. The slash and burn methods that once made deforestation of the rainforests in South America notorious are used by farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
But residents in Indonesia, and the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Singapore, feel the impact of the fires through a daily deluge of haze that has covered the region for over a month.
The pollution index is the highest since 1997 when the region experienced another bout of haze from land-clearing fires. Once again, the same culprits are to blame; namely companies and land owners seeking to plant lucrative oil palms in the cheapest possible way. Some forests are burning, but other fires burn on dried peat lands, a highly combustible bed of organic material sometimes 20 meters thick. Peat can burn for long periods of time due to the amount of fuel.
Even Malaysia’s Environment Minister Azmi Khalid acknowledges the destruction, but says that not much can be done.
Open burning for land-clearing is the cause of the haze. In Kalimantan alone, there are now one million hectares of palm oil plantations. But the cost of bringing the haze under control is very high. This is because the effective way of dealing with the problem is to use special aircraft to douse the flames said Khalid.
Stopping the burn may be hard, but stopping the burners is even harder. Satellite images have located the hot spots and officials know plantation conglomerates are to blame, but pinpointing the firestarters proves difficult.
Indonesia is currently investigating 16 companies and land owners for their role in the fires, but no follow through or prosecution has yet to occur as the haze continues to block out the sun day after day.
Small-town businesses run by shopkeepers who have been in business for decades close their doors in Indonesia due to ill health from the air pollution. Cosmopolitan Singapore fears highly mobile foreign talent will seek other shores of commerce. Environmental economist Euston Quah from Singapore’s Nanang Technological University estimates the loss in Singapore at US $50 million so far with no end in sight.
The region is experiencing a more severe dry season with little rain. Foong Chee Leong, director general of the National Environment Agency’s Meteorological Services Division said lack of rain, combined with a highly unpredictable wind pattern for the upcoming monsoon season, means the haze will persist.