Indonesia/Malaysia/Singapore– Planes cant land, schools are closed, states of emergency imposed and the Indonesian President Joko Widodo makes a surprise visit to still-smoking South Sumatra. This is the new normal for Southeast Asian summers choking haze from Indonesian forest fires. Unlike past years, the pall hardly makes a headline in the Hong Kong press. For Singaporeans, Malaysian and Indonesians the inconvenience and ill health are something they have to live with. This year is no exception. The Singapore government has a special website.
The forest fires are set partly to clear land for palm oil plantations. Innovative efforts are going into tracking down the culprits, who in the past were able to get away with burning forest land for plantations because of the difficulty of figuring exactly what was going on in locations that are far from Jakarta.
Washington, D.C.-based environmental group World Resources Institute (WRI) is using satellites and computers to identify the sites of fire down to one square kilometer in size. Here is a link to WRIs forest-fire tracking site and WRIs latest blog on the subject.
Although almost half of the forest fires take place in large plantation holders concessions, conservationist Erik Meijaard argues that the focus on large plantation-holders misses the point. Given that a majority of burning is taking place outside of large concession-holders boundaries, sometimes just for fun, he says that the government needs to get serious about fire prohibitions and take the total costs of development (whether slash-and-burn agriculture or development of coastal peatlands) into account.
The key point is that the fire and haze problem in Indonesia is complex, with multiple actors playing a role. Focusing on large concessions alone, which the Indonesian government and also non-government organizations seem to do, is not going to do much to reduce the problem, writes Meijaard. Anyone who has ever spent time in Kalimantan or Sumatra during the dry season knows that burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or just for fun is a favorite pastime of many.
This note from a friend who owns a palm oil plantation and has taken numerous measures to implement sustainable palm oil cultivation details some of the problems.
The palm plantation owner writes:
What is causing the fires burning on degraded peat forest and unproductive scrubland in the province of Riau, Sumatra? These are the fires that create the haze affecting Singapore, Malaysia and the province of Riau itself.
From my own experience, I can identify several causes of these annually occurring fires each dry season.
Contractors of palm oil companies who accidentally start fires that quickly get out of control unless management immediately intervenes
Small holders practicing slash and burn as a cheap way to clear land for planting intentionally burn their own land
Large plantations with poor Environmental, Health and Safety practices have thousands of employees who may behave in unsafe ways like tossing cigarette butts into dry scrub
Once a fire begins on peat soil it is difficult control.
How can we avoid these recurring and large scale fires? One way is to
1. Establish a permanent organization that has a work program, budget and the authority to act on behalf of the provincial and central governments
2. This organization would have stakeholder meetings of community leaders, provincial government and businesses to jointly take preemptive measures before every dry season begins
Challenge : Why isnt this being done?
The provincial government hasnt got the manpower, equipment or budget to deal with this issue.
The central government is distracted with what is sees as national issues such as:
efforts to reduce the systemic corruption
agricultural policies that have failed to address food security and rising prices of basic staples such as beef, soy bean.
infrastructure development that has failed to keep pace with requirements for more manufactured exports
wage confrontation between labor and business
The common elements required to resolve these challenges are: good policy, strong enforcement and political will power. At this stage, Indonesias dysfunctional government is going to focus on the 5 challenges I just mentioned. Not on the haze. So realistically, I think the problem will continue. But
Positive: Increasing numbers of the large, established palm oil companies are becoming members of RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil). Annual audits ensure certification is maintained. There is premium for RSPO certified oil palm thats the incentive for doing it. Our own company has its product RSPO certified.
Notes: The haze and the fires that cause them affect mainly one province out of 33 and is seasonal. The other significant challenges I mention earlier affect the whole nation constantly.
My summary: the issue of Indonesias forest fires, a local problem that has global consequences because of the impact on carbon emissions, needs to be approached both from a bottom-up and a top-down perspective. International NGOs are having an impact by putting pressure on companies such as Unilever and Nestle . WRIs science-based surveillance will help on-the-ground efforts. Unfortunately, work on the ground in Indonesia is not easy. In a culture where people set fires for food, for money, for hunting and just for fun, its hard to change behavior. Indonesia needs regional and local political leadership to simultaneously adopt a zero-tolerance policy to forest fires while at the same time providing more and more sustainable economic opportunities.
This is easier said than done. In 2010, Norway promised to provide Indonesian $1 billion to help make this transition to sustainable forestry and agriculture under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, but the program failed to meet many of its goals, as this post from the Center of Global Development highlights.
Meanwhile, the situation looks like its getting worse, at least in parts of Borneo, as we move into mid-September. Malaysias Star reported on Sept. 11 that the haze in part of Borneo is so bad that satellite images cannot see fire hotspots. The Star quoted Malaysias Natural Resources and Environment Minister Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafa a estimating that four-fifths of the Indonesian part of Borneo was under a cloud of smoke. The paper also quoted the minister as saying that the Malysian portion of the island did not show any evidence of hotspots. Meanwhile, click through to the Borneo Posts pictures to get a sense of what its like to be breathing the haze: They make the air in this picture below, of Singapore, look by comparison not quite as bad.