Indonesia — With the dry season just around the corner and the El Nino weather phenomenon making matters worse, concerns are being raised over whether Indonesias infamous forest fires will once again shroud its neighbors in smoke.
Just last week, Indonesia and four other Southeast Asian countries under the Subregional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution gathered in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, and agreed to evaluate efforts to reduce the haze.
This was hoped to build on measures agreed to at the last regional meeting in August, when Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and host nation Singapore agreed to ban all open burning.
However, Heddy S Mukna, assistant deputy for forest and land degradation control at the Ministry of Forestry, said the country already had strict environmental and forestry regulations that restricted the use of open fires for land clearing.
We dont need to agree to everything, actually, because we already have our own regulations, he said.
Indonesia has yet to ratify the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002.
Under the countrys 1999 Forestry Law, all forms of land clearing by burning is prohibited. The law was passed not long after major fires in 1997 and 1998 fueled by drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon created a debilitating haze across Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand, causing more than $9 billion in damages to tourism, transportation and farming.
However, not much progress has been seen since the law was passed in 1999. In fact, at a United Nations meeting in 2006, Singapore accused Indonesia of doing nothing to alleviate the problem.
But Heddy said he was optimistic for the year ahead. We just need to encourage local governments more. We need to coordinate all regions to reduce hotspots by 20 percent per year from the 2006 baseline [of 145,522 hotspots countrywide], he said.
The regulations on forest and land fires will automatically help us achieve the target.
But two provinces that regularly deal with the forest fires every year say a blanket ban on open burning cannot be implemented that easily.
Agustin Teras Narang, governor of Central Kalimantan, said fire was still being used to clear vast tracts of land because of tradition and the mistaken belief that it helped to improve the soil. Furthermore, these methods were not only used by local farmers, but also by big plantations.
These plantation companies usually hire contractors to manage the land, who prefer the burning method to clear the lands because it is more effective. But their idea of effectiveness costs a lot for others, Teras said.
The toughest time was in 2007 when it was extremely hot, causing the peatlands to dry out and easily catch fire.
The following year, Terass administration decided to crack down on violators, but at the same time issued a gubernatorial regulation allowing controlled burning by some small farmers. A complete ban, he said, would have adversely affected small producers and hurt the provinces rice output.
A limited permit system was established, requiring farmers to get varying levels of permission depending on amount of land held.
However, this is not for big plantation companies or forest concessionaires. If companies are proven to have conducted open land clearing, then there will be no mercy I will revoke their permits, Teras said.
He added that the provinces new policy had proven effective. With the new regulation, our hotspots have decreased significantly by around 50 to 65 percent, he said.
Riau says the blanket ban has so far been futile because of poor implementation.
Fadrizal Labai, head of Riaus environmental agency, said the effectiveness of the ban depended on law enforcement. There were some cases investigated by the police, but plenty of them got away, he said.
Since 2005, Riau has been trying to pass a regional regulation that is stronger than a gubernatorial regulation and would allow land clearing by burning for farmers with less than two hectares of land. The initiative, however, has been shot down by the home affairs and forestry ministries.
The regulation came up because the provinces smaller farmers were not able to rent heavy machinery to clear land, Fadrizal said, adding that in the meantime a gubernatorial regulation has been issued on the matter.
To prevent forest fires and haze this year, Syaid Nurjaya, head of forest and land fires at the Riau forestry agency, said monitors and firefighters had already been dispatched to the most fire prone areas in the province.
Based on satellite imaging, there were 401 hotspots in Riau from January to April, a massive decrease from the same period last year, which had 4,681.
Smoke from forest fires to clear land in Riau and Kalimantan is a major problem for the region, with the thick haze choking neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.