Eternal flames

Eternal flames

04 July 2013

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Indonesia — HEAVY rains doused the worst of the fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peat wetlands in recent weeks. But even as the suffocating pall of smoke begins to clear from the skies above Sumatra—and Malaysia and Singapore beyond it—the causes of South-East Asia’s perennial “haze” remain stubbornly fixed in place.

At the farming village of Rantau Baru, in the Pelalawan district of Riau province (see map below), Ibu Saparina is relieved that her seven children are no longer choking from noxious smoke. It had become so thick at one point that she could see no further than 5 metres (16 feet). The fires went on to turn the surrounding peatlands into a charred wasteland, denuded of trees. But she does not regret the burnt landscape. Now she and the other villagers have more land on which to plant crops.

Attitudes like Ibu Saparina’s underscore the challenge the government faces as it tries to put down the annual fire season. Laws forbid the kind of slash-and-burn farming that is largely to blame for the disaster. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, recently renewed a moratorium on forest-clearing. It is supposed to protect peatlands like those at Rantau Baru. But the limits of the law are obvious in this fire-ravaged corner of Riau.

Willem Rampangilei, a deputy minister for the environment at the co-ordinating ministry for people’s welfare, which is leading the government’s response to the fires, says it would be impossible to eradicate the slash-and-burn tradition completely. Speaking at an air-force base in Pekanbaru, where aeroplanes are being sortied for cloud-seeding missions, he noted that villagers cannot afford to buy or hire expensive earth-moving machines to make their land arable. Slash-and-burn is the more “efficient” way to prepare land for cultivation; it is fast and increases the fertility of the soil.

In what he proposes as a compromise between the law and tradition, Mr Rampangilei says local authorities should work with the farmers so that not all land is cleared at the same time. With the proper management and regulation, different patches could be burned on a rotating basis, he says.

Riau is home to large plantations, as well as small farmers. It is the bigger firms that have turned the province into Indonesia’s leading producer of oil palm, churning out some 5m tonnes a year. Most of them profess to have strict no-burn policies, but police are investigating reports that some lit these fires themselves, or paid others to do it on their behalf. Yuyun Indradi, a campaigner at Greenpeace, says it is common for large firms to expand by paying locals to torch land along the edges of their concessions. Even when cases are filed with the police however, convictions are rare. Corruption, conflicting maps and the conglomerates’ confusing ownership structures make it difficult to enforce the rules that should govern farming and forestry in Riau.

Plantation workers at a palm-oil concession owned by a subsidiary of Asian Agri are still battling a blaze. Asian Agri is part of a conglomerate called RGE which also owns Asia Pacific Resource International Limited, a pulp producer. Despite toiling in searing heat and thick smoke, these workers have only two hosepipes between them (see one pictured, below)—well short of what it would take to extinguish a great, peat-fuelled fire. Even as they douse the flames in one spot, another clump of vegetation catches light. This little scene of futility is likely to be repeated across Sumatra until the wet season starts in October.

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