fire in Riau

Fires And Smoke in Riau, Indonesia, February 2002

17 February 2002

by Ivan P. Anderson IvanAnderson
Formerly with the EU-Forest Fire Prevention and Control Project, Palembang,Indonesia.

Flooding today – fire,earthquake and volcanic eruptions tomorrow. Such is Indonesia’s environmentallot. Flooding may be today’s big media story but it is reliably predictable thatfire and smoke, mainly the latter, will be in the national news before long,whether or not El Niño 2002 materialises.
However, when reporting does occur in Indonesia it is usually only afterairports close because they are blanketed in smoke (e.g. Pekanbaru andPalangkaraya last year) or Singapore/Malaysia make official complaints to theIndonesian Government because of ekspor asap from peat fires in Sumatra.
What action is being taken to deal with this problem? In January, regionalauthorities (Governors and Bupati) in fire prone areas of Sumatra and Kalimantanwere requested by the Vice President, as the Head of the National DisasterManagement Coordinating Board, to prepare a comprehensive programme forcontrolling fires. They were also urged to take stern action and sanctionsagainst those guilty of causing forest and land fires. At the internationallevel, and after four years’ planning and drafting, the ASEAN Transboundary HazeAgreement will be signed in June to reaffirm a commitment among member countriesto fight haze.
There is clearly agreement at the highest levels to address the problems thatvegetation and peat fires cause. But unfortunately this rarely, if ever, filtersdown through the various levels of bureaucracy and vested interest thatcomplicate Indonesian society to materialise as effective action on the ground.
Self-regulation within the agro-industrial sector is a way forward and formationof the Haze Prevention Group ( the first seriousattempt by some of the mainly pulpwood and oil palm companies to tackle thefires and haze that they are often accused of causing, although rarelyprosecuted for initiating.
Using satellite data, mainly from NOAA and SPOT, detection and monitoring ofvegetation fires and smoke haze affecting Sumatra and Kalimantan are now routineand highly effective procedures. In each year between the major drought and fireyears associated with El Niño there are short periods of a few weeks when smokehaze events occur in Sumatra and Kalimantan. All these mini-haze events areassociated with burning in peatland, whether forested or not, with Riau andCentral Kalimantan being the provinces most seriously affected.
Riau peat fires have been burning continuously since early January this year butare only now receiving attention in the local papers (Riau Pos, 9 February 2002- Ribuan Hektare Hutan dan Kebun Musnah Terbakar. Api Terus Menjalar danMencemaskan (Thousands of hectares of forest and plantation destroyed byburning. Fire continues to spread and cause concern). The haze is affecting thetowns of Dumai and Duri in Riau but not Malaysia/Singapore since this region isstill under the influence of the North-East Monsoon. If the winds had beenblowing from the opposite direction, as they will, starting about April, thenthe publicity would no doubt have been much greater.
Two lessons can be drawn from these relatively small but chronic fires thatproduce a great deal of smoke. (a) They should be tackled and suppressed inimmediate response to initial detection and reporting by the monitoring agenciesin Indonesia and Singapore and (b) if these mini-haze occurrences cannot beprevented (preferably) or controlled (other than by the onset of rain) thenthere is no hope when the next severe El Niño drought arrives. During El Niñoyears, the areas affected by severe drought are likely to include the peat-richprovinces of South Sumatra, Jambi and East Kalimantan – all very badly damagedby the wildfires of 1997-98.

Other points that havebeen made many times before but bear repeating are:

With respect to Sumatra,there are very few sizeable blocks of primary lowland forest left and nearly allof these are peat swamp forest in Riau and Jambi. As a reminder of theirfragility after disturbance, some quarter million hectares of peat swamp forestsubject over many years to HPH (Forest Concession Right) logging in SouthSumatra Province were
destroyed by fire during 1997. Apart from Berbak National Park, these lastremnants of rain forest are unprotected. Since the dryland Dipterocarp forestsof lowland Sumatra have more or less disappeared, the previously disregardedpeat swamp forests in both coastal and inland locations have become the focusfor logging (almost all illegal) and conversion to plantations – both activitiesare linked to fire occurrence in an ecosystem where fire under naturalconditions is hardly known.
All the peat swamp forest in Riau and Jambi is under considerable pressure fromsmallholder migrant, large-scale commercial, the oil/gas industry and Governmentactivities. Competition for access to land and forest resources is increasing.Most of the remaining primary forest has been earmarked by Government forconversion to estate plantations, mainly for industrial pulpwood.
Clearing and draining peat swamp forest for plantations, whether for Acaciasp. pulpwood, oil palm, coconuts or rice, may be an attractive financialenterprise in the short-term but there is little evidence that the results willbe sustainable in the long-term, particularly on the scale at which it is beingpractised along the eastern seaboard of Sumatra. Unsustainable kinds of land useare behind most of the haze problems in Indonesia. These will continue untilradical changes are made to the way peatland is managed.
Be sceptical of claims that it is just local people (the ‘slash and burn’farmer) destroying the peat forest. Small-scale farmers sensibly avoid deep peatareas, unless they are put there as part of government schemes such as the nowderelict Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan or, in the case of WestKalimantan, local government attempts to resettle displaced Madurese in peatswamp schemes. When the local community is involved, it appears to be acollaborative arrangement with estate companies based on a production-sharingagreement.

For more information onthe threat to the peatlands of Sumatra see:

For a description of megaand mini haze events and fire in Indonesia’s peat swamps see:


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