Riau is Burning… Again

Riau is Burning… Again

12 February 2014

published by www.thejakartaglobe.com

Indonesia — Brushfires continued to rage on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Wednesday, blanketing the troubled Riau province in heavy haze and prompting calls of concern in Singapore as officials braced for the possible return of what is fast becoming an annual problem.

Local officials first reported hazy conditions in Riau last week as the province’s yearly brushfires tore through parched forests and scrubland after weeks of little rain. On Feb. 6, climate and disaster officials reported some 109 “hotspots” across Riau, placing the blame on local farmers’ use of a traditional method to clear covered farmland: setting the offending foliage alight.

By Monday the Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency counted some 187 hotspots on satellite imagery provided to Indonesian officials by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). One day later that number had jumped to 458 hotspots throughout Sumatra, Riau disaster agency head Said Saqlul Amri told the state-run Antara News Agency. More than half of the fires were in Riau, predominately concentrated in the districts of Bengkalis, Rokan Hilir and Siak, he said.

“The number of hotspot in Riau is 244, an increase from 55 hotspots a day before,” he said.

Air quality hit hazardous levels in Dumai and Siak districts on Tuesday, measuring 400 API on the Pollutant Standards Index. In Bengkalis and the provincial capital of Pekanbaru the air quality measured in excess of 100 API — “unhealthy” on the scale.

Some 1,493 people suffered respiratory illness in Dumai and Siak, the only districts to report cases to the local Health Agency. Officials worry the number will climb as additional reports roll in.

“At the moment, we only have reports from the two districts about the number of people suffering [upper respiratory tract infections] because of the haze in Riau,” Diwani, head of Riau Health Agency told the local news portal goriau.com on Tuesday.

The agency has distributed hundreds of masks in affected areas, and warned residents to remain indoors until the haze recedes. In Siak elementary and high schools have been temporarily closed since Tuesday to prevent students from falling ill.

“There are 210 schools are closed because the haze is getting thicker and dangerous especially for the children,” Siak education agency Kadri Yafis told the Indonesian news portal Liputan6.com.

Four flights were cancelled because of poor visibility at Riau’s Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport on Wednesday. Several other planes were able to land safely at the airport despite visibility dropping to as little as 200 meters. The airport’s staff has warned pilots to remain alert and is prepared to divert planes to nearby airports if visibility drops further.

A hot-button issue

The fires are already garnering a reaction in Singapore, where officials, already exasperated with Indonesia over the decision to name a naval vessel after two men responsible for a deadly 1965 bombing of an Orchard Road office building, were quick to express further disappointment in their neighbor.

“Hot spots increasing dramatically in Sumatra, with 458 visible today,” the city-state’s environment minister Vivian Balakhrisnan wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Haze may worsen when the winds weaken next week. Some rain expected, but not enough to douse the fires.

“We will try to encourage them to take action — but we all know the welfare of close neighbors is not their priority.”

Air quality in Singapore measured a healthy 35 API on Wednesday, according to the city-state’s National Environmental Agency.

Last year’s brushfires, which blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in a thick blanket of hazardous haze, resulted in weeks of finger-pointing and name calling between the neighboring nations. Indonesian officials accused Singapore of “behaving like a child,” while others accused Singaporean companies of setting the fires.

Many of the companies involved in agri-business in Indonesia are registered in Singapore, but were founded and are still run by Indonesian moguls — a fact that makes such criticisms moot.

Officials in Singapore and Malaysia accused Indonesia of failing to curb what has long been an annual problem. Air quality in Singapore dropped to the worst levels in more than a decade last year, prompting the adoption of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) agreement on a transnational haze monitoring system.

One Ministry of Forestry official said the central government was concerned about the potential impact in Singapore and Malaysia.

“For sure, our government is prioritizing our own country [right now] as it’s not their country which is affected by the smoke at the moment, but us,” Raffles Panjaitan, the director of forestry investigations and observation at the Ministry of Forestry, told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday. “We never intend to send smoke [to Singapore], but the wind might be heading there. We are concerned about this.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in an effort to prevent further strains on cross-border relations, ordered all disaster mitigation officers to do everything in their power to prevent the spread of haze to neighboring countries.

“Our officers have carried out efforts to prevent and handle the fires,” Raffles said.

‘An old tradition’

The Indonesian government has blamed this year’s haze on the actions of small-scale farmers — a claim that diverts the blame from large international agricultural commodity companies but underscores the hurdles the country faces in curbing an illegal practice in a place where enforcement is often lax and corruption is endemic.

“From initial information, the cause of the fire was local people who were used to clearing the land by burning it,” Raffles said. “It is an old tradition.”

A new crop of farmers from the neighboring province of North Sumatra were to blame for the fires, Raffles said. The farmers had moved in to concessions already granted to large agricultural firms, setting the existing cover on fire in an attempt to divert the blame and later use the land themselves, he explained.

“They wanted to imply that the companies were the ones who are burning the forests,” Raffles said. “Police have launched investigation into this case.”

This year’s early dry season in Riau has compounded matters, he said. The dry land has made containing the blaze difficult, Raffles admitted.

“Although it’s wet in Jakarta and most of Java, Riau and West Kalimantan have not seen rain for a month,” he said.

Local residents also set fires of their own during the dry season, torching roadside forests and wooded areas near residential neighborhoods, National Disaster and Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

“These [dry] conditions trigger people to burn the forest,” Sutopo told the Indonesian news portal kompas.com. “Most of the hotspots are located near the streets or residential areas.”

Little progress on a government solution

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) placed the blame on the shoulders of the central government, arguing that the ministries had a track record of favoring large palm and pulp companies known for environmentally destructive practices.

“It’s the mistake of the Indonesian government.” Zenzi Suhadi, a campaigner at Walhi, said on Wednesday. “When they issue a land concession, they failed to consider the environment and the rights of the local people. So it’s normal that after the environment has been badly damaged, that there would be consequences like forest fires and floods.”

The organization urged the government to review the contracts of any company caught burning to clear land.

“They should review the concessions given to companies which illegally clear the land,” Zenzi said.

The campaigner pointed to a disputed concession in Meranti owned by Nasional Sagu Prima, a sago palm plantation company. The land was long used as a sago plantation, but local farmers had always planted the trees amid the existing forest, he said.

When the company was awarded the land by the central government, it clear-cut the forest and planted a large 21,000-hectare sago plantation, Zenzi said. When the plantation caught fire, it quickly spread to land owned by local, small-scale farmers, he explained.

“Recently their plantation was on fire and it spread to people’s plantations,” he said.

While the company was able to douse the flames, the damage was already done to several local farms, Zenzi said.

“They cleared the forest,” he said. “They made the problem and the local people have become the victims. It’s the mistake of the government.”

The central government has to stop protecting big companies and reduce the environmental impact of unsustainable practices in places like Riau, he explained.

“The only way to stop [the fires] is by limiting the issuance of concessions for the plantation companies, especially those who have been illegally clearing the forest,” he said.

The government, though, has its own plan. Local officials need to continue their work to convince farmers to not set fire to existing vegetation.

“We do try to change their practices,” Raffles said. “Officers from the central government, the provincial to district level, have tried to inform and educate them about this. But they can’t be changed automatically. It takes time.”

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