ASEAN — recently agreed to adopt a haze monitoring system to combat the yearly pollution caused by illegal burning to clear land in Indonesia.
In June, the pollution got so bad it caused a thick haze to blanket Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
Indonesia’s Riau province is covered with vast areas of carbon-rich peatland and every year, reckless burning to clear land for agricultural use releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Riau alone produces more carbon dioxide than the whole of Germany, the world’s fourth largest industrial nation.
Over 50 percent of land in Riau province is peatland.
Sagu is the only crop that can be cultivated on the naturally acidic peatland soil and most farmers would rather plant cash crops, like palm trees, which bring in more money.
Land-clearing has caused the forest cover in Riau to shrink 65 percent in the last 25 years.
Palm oil farmer Ponimin said: “Palm trees reach maturity by the fourth year. It’s more profitable because it bears fruit every two weeks. For sagu we have to cut the whole plant and must replant immediately.”
As the world’s largest producer, palm oil plantations in Indonesia occupy some eight million hectares of land in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The expansion of these estates is seen as important for infrastructure development in rural Indonesia.
In the government’s economic development master plan, Riau is designated as the hub for palm oil production, with plans to double the current production of crude palm oil to 40 million tonnes annually by 2020.
Critics are accusing the government of mismanagement.
Muslim Rasyid, environmental activist at Jikalahari, said: “If the government manages the existing concession lands, it can actually boost more revenue. That’s what we see is not being done. The efforts are more to how to expand farmland instead of how to increase the quality of production.”
Weak law enforcement and monitoring in the forestry and plantations sector is also a problem.
Despite anti-fire regulations, it is rare for offenders to be prosecuted for illegal clearing of land.
Activists have called for better enforcement. They also said economic benefits should not take precedence over environmental protection.