Lessons to be learnt from the haze

Lessons to be learnt from the haze

26 June 2013

published by www.nst.com.my

Indonesia — RECURRING PROBLEM: Preventing and controlling forest fires is incredibly challenging, particularly in Southeast Asia, writes Ekoningtyas Margu Wardani

ALTHOUGH haze has a long history in Indonesia, regionally it has been a problem for Asean countries since 1997, when El Nino winds exacerbated the fires raging in the region.

That year marked the worst man-made disaster before the current situation. Haze largely comes from forest fires burning in Indonesia. Reuters reported back in 2009 that Indonesia’s neighbouring countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (southern part), were covered by the haze in 1997, causing US$9 billion (RM18 billion) worth of losses to tourism, transportation and farming industries.

Forest fires, which reached epic proportions in 1997 to 1998 — covering 9.7 million ha — caused destruction to the tune of US$8.8 billion to US$9.7 billion, according to the Interagency Mission Report.

Disasters are a regular occurrence during the dry season, particularly on Sumatra and Kalimantan, but the situation has deteriorated in the last decade with increasing land-clearing operations carried out by timber and plantation firms.

Riau is the worst affected province in Sumatra, while West Kalimantan is the main area suspected of sending the haze to Malaysia. Winds from the southeast and southwest have blown the haze towards Malaysia and Singapore.

Sufficient research has been carried out on forest fires, identifying both the cause and impact of the fires and attendant haze-related problems. According to Schweithelm and Glover (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies & International Development Research Center, 1999), one of the indirect impact resulting from the haze was human ailments.

Forest fires have become a global issue in the world’s ecology and economy. This is due to the fact that forest fires interrupt sustainable development as they produce emissions and pollution, and influence the ecosystem balance, including the socioeconomics of human beings.

In Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, forest fires have been a persistent and recurring problem. Having the largest tropical and peat forests in the subregion, Indonesia has for many years been regarded as the main producer of forest fires and attendant haze, the effects of which are felt well beyond its national borders, causing all manner of ailments to populations in neighbouring states such as Malaysia and Singapore.

To date, various efforts involving the central government, regional governments, local and foreign non-governmental organisations and the private sector have been made to prevent the recurrence of forest fires as well as mitigating and controlling them.

Some efforts have taken the form of short-term projects, while others were linked to long-term national and regional development programmes. Preventing and controlling forest fires is challenging. Despite a series of programmes being implemented at the local, national, regional and international levels, the obstacles that hamper the effectiveness of forest-fire reduction in Indonesia still remain.

These obstacles include a lack of awareness at all levels of society, constraints on institutional regulations, weak law enforcement, overlapping claims to land and forest resources, and the non-enforcement of national laws on zero burning.

The haze problem has become even more important since greenhouse gas produced by the haze is a lot heavier than that produced by other sources.

From 2006 to 2012, Indonesia “benefited” from rainy seasons that lasted longer than the dry seasons. Now, however, Indonesia needs to increase its attention and be prepared for another El Nino phenomenon in the future.

President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, via his Twitter account, said the Indonesian government was determined to decrease the haze in Riau within one month.

The question is, what will be done to achieve that target, and how long will it last?

Aside from that, forest fires are not discussed within sectors. The Forestry Ministry stated that very few forest fires were burning in Indonesia, as forested area in the country amounted to only 30 per cent of total land area; while the remaining 70 per cent of land was non-forested, as rice fields and plantations.

It is possible that the aim to decrease the haze can be achieved by the Forestry Ministry, but what about outside the forests? Who will be responsible for the fires raging in those areas?

The Agriculture Ministry, which oversees plantations, does not have any preventive programme, whether at a provincial or regency level.

It seems that haze pollution is a persistent problem that refuses to go away, since it is rooted in human behaviour and attitudes that are resistant to change due to the greed of the corporate world and lack of coordination in fire-fighting and control policies at regional, national and international levels.

We need to find the best solution on how to protect people from haze pollution, not only in Indonesia but also in neighbouring countries; especially the most vulnerable (children, pregnant women and the elderly) and those who live in remote and rural areas. Cost effective measures need to be taken to protect them.

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