ASEAN needs $10 billion to tackle deadly forest fires: scientist

ASEAN needs $10 billion to tackle deadly forest fires: scientist

14 September 2015

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ASEAN– Smog-affected ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, should allocate up to US$10 billion to cope with unending forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, a scientist said.

“The cost is equal to the estimated total economic losses resulting from the recent smog,” Herry Purnomo, a scientist at CIFOR and professor at Bogor Agricultural University, told

Herry said that Indonesia was estimated to suffer $4 billion in losses this year, in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism and other economic endeavors.

A 2013 World Bank report shows the total financial loss from forest fires in Riau province amounted to Rp 20 trillion ($1.4 billion).

“The funding allocated to handling forest fires is very small. It is about a hundred thousand dollars. How can we manage to do anything with such little funding and such a huge problem like the forest fire issue,” he said.

Herry added that Malaysia and Singapore, as smog-affected countries, should be more responsible in dealing with forest fires by issuing regulations and law enforcement for their citizens’ companies operating in Indonesia.

“About 50 percent of palm oil companies operating in Indonesia are owned by Malaysians and Singaporeans,” Herry asserted.

According to Herry, Indonesia has at least 11 million hectares of oil palm plantation spread across the islands, from Sumatra to Papua.

A number of palm oil companies clear land by burning it in order to reduce production costs, Herry said.

“Lets make a comparison between the cost of mechanized [land clearing] and burning. The first one costs Rp 2 million ($150) per hectare and the second one is only $7 per hectare,” he said.

Herry added that swidden agriculture had been practiced by farmers in many places in Indonesia for generations and was now adopted by the industry as the best method for cost cutting.

“So, the swidden method has become a policy and common practice for many plantation companies,” he added.

Forest fires and smog have therefore become an annual problem for Indonesians due to improper practices of plantation companies in doing business, Herry said.

Turning deadly

Herry said that the forest fires, which always occurred during the dry season, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, had never been handled satisfactory over the past two decades.

“This year forest fires are the worst since 1997,” he said.

Jambi Environmental Agency (BLHD) announced on Sunday that the air pollution standard index (ISPU) in the provincial capital of Jambi was at the “very dangerous” level of 409, up from 360 on Saturday, which was already within the “dangerous” level, The Jakarta Post reported on Monday.

Agency head Rosmeli said the pollution level was the highest recorded in the past several years and was a result largely of the spread of bigger dust particles from the forest fires.

“In such situations, the air is very dangerous to inhale, not only for children but also for adults,” Rosmeli was quoted by the Post as saying, adding that the air pollution could lead to dried lips, eye pain, chest tightness and inflammation of the respiratory tract.

Dozens of residents arrived at local hospitals for treatment as smog claimed the lives of Dimas Aditya Putra, 2, and Wahyuni, 15, a student of Junior High School SMP 5 in Jambi. Both died last week after experiencing acute respiratory problems, the Post reported.

Jambi, along with Riau, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, are the provinces hardest hit by the air pollution originating from fires in peat land and plantations.

The fires have also caused air pollution in Malaysia to reach alarming levels.

Data from Global Forest Watch (GFW), an international forest monitoring network initiated by Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), has revealed that between September 5 and 12, around 63 percent of the fires were in peat lands, while the remaining 20 percent were in industrial timber plantations, 13 percent in oil palm plantation and 4 percent in logging areas, according to the paper.

The GFW’s data also revealed a number of hot spots in major firms’ plantations. Five of these plantations are major suppliers of Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).

APP managing director for sustainability Aida Greenbury denied that the company’s suppliers were using swidden methods to clear their concession, adding that the government should uphold law enforcement and ask all parties to stop pointing their fingers.

“A forest moratorium should also be imposed on [swidden-based land clearing] for communities and small landholders, not only for large corporations,” Aida told

Based on the pattern of forest fires in Indonesia, the intensity of fires is affected by the length of the dry season. When there is a long period of low rainfall, litter and vegetation become a perfect fuel for flames, said Herry, the CIFOR scientist mentioned earlier in the article.

“The terrible 1997 forest fires, for example, occurred during a long dry season due to the El Niño cycle,” he said

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