Indonesia — The smoke rising over Sumatra has started early this year, with peatland fires in Riau, Sumatra, creating a haze so thick that in March it grounded flights and closed schools; at least two deaths were attributed to the choking smoke. It was a grim reprise of June 2013, when windblown haze from peatland fires in Riau clouded Malaysia and Singapore, leading to Singapores highest air pollution measure on record.
Now, a major multilateral effort to stop the haze is gaining traction, seeking to encourage more research into a few key areas.
The fires that create Riaus haze are no accident they are deliberately set by people to clear land for agriculture. Nor are they forest fires, as was initially reported in June they are fires on already-deforested areas, chiefly peatlands, in an area where oil palm and paper pulp plantations dominate the landscape, where ignitions by both local communities and companies contributed.
A workshop held in January in Jakarta was the first major step in trying to better understand the drivers of the fires, to spur greater collaboration among Indonesian and regional stakeholders at all levels, and to analyze the regulations governing these issues in Indonesia. The workshop, hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), drew researchers, government officials, and leaders from communities, civil society and the private sector, among others. At the workshop, the stakeholders many who had never met before gathered to discuss what they knew, what they thought they knew, and what they needed to know about the fires.
There were more questions than answers, but one issue became clear during the discussions at the workshop: Numerous regulations and policies that govern land use and fires already exist in Indonesia, among them a national moratorium on the granting of new concession licences for logging and conversion of forests and peatlands.
In the face of this law and others, why do the fires persist?
This question lies at the heart of the issue, and is complicated by other factors that were discussed at the workshop chiefly, overlapping land claims and a lack of collaboration among actors and governments at all levels.
To answer this overarching question, we need to unravel the complex governance and socioeconomic context and climatic feedbacks behind fires on peat lands. Four additional questions about the fires were identified as a result of the workshop. These questions must be answered via more research if there is to be any real progress on snuffing out the haze.
1. Will fires become more frequent and more extreme? At this point, the answer is pointing to yes. Data show more fires and more extreme fires in the past two decades in Riau. While the fires are enabled by dry conditions, conditions in Riau suggest other variables are having a greater effect: An influx of people to the area has led to greater deforestation, which due to vegetation loss renders areas more prone to fire. Compounded by a push to convert forested areas to oil palm plantations as well as a lack of land-use governance, this creates a scenario in which fires are a worse and more recurrent problem.
2. What are the true emissions of these fires? The truth is, we dont really know. Many studies have been done with respect to emissions from land fires, but not from Riau. Knowing the true aerosol and carbon content of the fires enables us to set baselines that we can measure against.
3. To what extent do overlapping claims over land drive the fires? We know that there are cases of this, but to what extent these conflicts lead to the burning of land needs to be confirmed before we can make a meaningful attempt at addressing the root causes of the fires.
4. Do markets for palm oil drive fires on peatlands? We think that this is the case: the Indonesian government aims to expand palm oil production by 2020. The 2013 fires reflect ongoing conversion of recently deforested peatlands to oil palm. But it needs to be proven.
At least one thing we think we do know: These fires will persist and worsen unless something is done soon. We must act now.
As there are gaps in the research, so there are gaps between the many stakeholders in this drama.
Large-scale paper-pulp plantation companies say they are the victim in the haze crisis and complain of being scapegoated. Small-scale community groups say the same, and complain of being scapegoated and pushed aside. Different agencies within government show disagreement over responsibility over the fires. Local communities say they are largely left out of discussions and solutions. And there are complaints of a power imbalance among local communities, governments and commercial companies.
Luckily, there is a strong impetus for us to tackle this problem now. It starts with research more research is needed to address gaps in knowledge, pull evidence together, and apply it to policy making and actions on the ground. Last years crisis produced quick responses from governments: High-level regional talks in September led to a proposed transboundary haze monitoring system, and in early 2014, Singapore drafted a bill that would allow it to fine companies for fires that take place on Sumatran plantations. But these actions alone will not solve the problem.
This is one of the key topics of discussion at the upcoming Forests Asia Summit on May 5-6 in Jakarta. A session at this summit will discuss, among other things, the role of conflicts over land ownership between communities and companies and between local and central government in mediating fires. More details are at forestsasia.org.
Indonesia alone cannot solve the haze crisis, and that is why continuing the discussion and ramping up more research is so important. There is no time to lose.