Indonesia — Farmers in the Indonesian province of Jambi are continuing the practice of clearing land by burning forests, setting off fires that have been raging for the past few weeks.
Despite local and international efforts to wean them off the traditional slash-and-burn practice – which is banned – it is the cheapest and easiest way to clear land for farming, and is also the main cause of the haze that recently enveloped parts of Singapore and Malaysia.
When The Straits Times visited the province on Sumatra island yesterday, the strong smell of burning vegetation hung in the air, and some residents could be seen going around with masks.
In Jambi city, the provincial capital, reports of respiratory ailments had almost quadrupled from 127 to 479 in the past two weeks.
But there were no fires to be seen. Intermittent showers in the past two days have helped to put out forest and plantation fires, bringing the count of hot spots in Jambi – which hit 88 last Thursday – to zero yesterday.
A hot spot is a fire covering at least 1ha that can be detected by satellite.
The heavy smoke over the area, however, bore testament to the size of the fires that had been burning here just last week. It was only because of the unseasonal heavy rain, that the province – and the rest of the region – enjoyed a temporary respite from the fires and resulting haze.
Fires in Jambi – 330km south of Singapore – and other Sumatra provinces are blamed for the haze that envelops Singapore and peninsular Malaysia each year.
This year, Jambi was one of the worst provinces hit by fires. Some 1,530ha of oil palm plantations and 420ha of forest area were destroyed in the past few weeks, according to its forestry agency.
Indonesian officials and weather forecasters, however, say the clear skies may not continue. The dry season here could last till early next month, and another dry spell could allow fires to be restarted.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency said on its website that winds that have helped to blow away the haze are expected to continue to do so next week, but Singapore could still be affected by haze if there are fires in Sumatra.
Senior government weather forecaster Kurnianingsih, however, sought to ease concerns, telling The Straits Times yesterday: ‘But we will not likely see a haze situation as intense as the one that just passed, because that was a result of an accumulation of hot spot activities that started in early August.’
The burning in Jambi suggests that efforts to wean farmers off clearing land using fire have not taken hold.
Singapore has tried to help through a $1 million collaboration with Jambi officials aiming to mitigate fires by teaching farmers zero-burning practices and training local officials to monitor hot spots.
Singapore now funds four air and weather monitoring stations that help to detect fires quickly. ‘We have been using them and found them quite useful,’ said a local forest protection agency official.
The Indonesian government has also started programs to encourage aqua-culture, which does not require extensive forest clearing. And in the latest effort, Jambi’s provincial government has been distributing equipment to turn unburnt tree logs into ‘arang’, a local version of charcoal that can be sold. ‘But our problem is the funding,’ said the official. ‘Not every farmer gets this.’
But the authorities continue to struggle in their annual battle against the slashing and burning. Enforcing bans, officials say, is difficult because of the huge areas involved. And besides, poor farmers often have few other options when they need to clear land for agriculture. ‘We’re farmers,’ said one Jambi resident. ‘We can’t hire tractors. Only corporations use tractors.’
For many, it’s thus much easier – and cheaper – to just throw a match.
‘It’s a huge challenge because it’s about people’s economy,’ said the senior Jambi forest protection agency official.
Some farmers do try to prevent the fires from spreading. One told The Straits Times that he digs ditches around his land and fills them with water before burning bushes and logs between them.
But this is still very risky, as Mukri Priatna at the Indonesian Environmental Forum pointed out. A sudden and strong wind could spread the fire, he said.
‘And these ditches can sometimes dry up unnoticed and lose their effectiveness as separators,’ he said.