Commentary: Little smoke this haze season – but fires rage on in Indonesia

Kiki Taufik is Global Head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s forest campaign | November 15th, 2020

 

Much of the destruction to Indonesia’s forests and peatlands have taken place behind the veil of COVID-19 restrictions, says Greenpeace’s Kiki Taufik.

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The Burning Issue: Fighting Forest Fires With Technology

BY :TIUR RUMONDANG | OCTOBER 09, 2020   Many living in Southeast Asia – and even…

ASEAN cooperation to address transboundary haze amid pandemic

By: Kung Phoak | July 20th, 2020

 

ASEAN – Forest fires are a major source of transboundary haze in the ASEAN region. It is particularly pronounced in the dry season during the first half of the year for the Mekong subregion and second half of the year, most notably from July to September, for the southern ASEAN region.

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Coronavirus cuts force Indonesia to scale back forest protection

By: | June 25th, 2020

SINGAPORE – JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia has scaled back protection for some of the world’s most important tropical forests ahead of the worst season for fires because of budget cuts due to the coronavirus, the environment ministry said.

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China state media reports 19 people killed in forest fire

 

BEIJING (AP) — Nineteen people have died while fighting a raging forest fire in southwestern China and hundreds of reinforcements were sent to fight the blaze and evacuate nearby residents, officials and state media reported Tuesday.

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Chiang Mai chokes as fires rage in the north of Thailand

By: Greeley Pulitzer |

 

Northern Thailand is choking under a toxic shroud and it’s not getting any better. Air pollution across the upper North remains “at critical levels,” in many areas, including some of the main population centres. Authorities are monitoring almost 400 active hotspots in Chiang Mai alone yesterday.

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Bad air worsens plight

By: Panumate Tanraksa | March 29, 2020 | newspaper section: News

Toxic haze has reached a dangerous tipping point in Chiang Mai province

 

The bushfires that have been raging near the tourist city of Chiang Mai over the past few days are heightening concerns for both residents and the authorities with the risk they pose of extreme air pollution, coming on top of worries about the coronavirus.

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Sun bear cub saved from forest fire

By: Saichol Srinuanchan | March 10, 2020

 

RATCHABURI: A sun bear cub has been saved from a forest fire in Chalerm Phrakiat Thai Prajan National Park in Ban Kha district, and is now in the care of a wildlife assistance centre.

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Sparking debate over fire use on agricultural land in Indonesia

Sparking debate over fire use on agricultural land in Indonesia

ANGGRITA CAHYANINGTYAS | Monday, 26 Nov 2018

New peatlands research center aims to reshape conservation efforts

Indonesia “I can keep my land fertile and I’m able to work regardless of the season, but my neighbor who uses the burning method has difficulties during the rains because their land becomes a swamp,” said Akhmad (Taman) Tamanuruddin, addressing delegates at the launch of a new peatland research center in Indonesia.

Taman is a farmer in Palangka Raya, the capital of Indonesia’s province of Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. He rejects the traditional local practice of using fire to clear residue from the fertile peatlands before planting his crops.

Instead, he applies herbicides and lets the old vegetation die off and decompose, allowing it to become a natural fertilizer.

Traditional burning practices are under scrutiny by scientists and policymakers because peatlands are effective carbon sinks. They are made up of layers of decomposed organic material built up over thousands of years. When they burn, warming gases are released into the atmosphere exacerbating climate change. Fires often burn out of control, damaging vast areas and drying out the land, rendering it useless for farming.

In 2015, the impact of wildfires was far-reaching. Fire destroyed more than 2.6 million hectares of land — an area 4.5 times the size of the Indonesian island of Bali, according to the World Bank. The price tag for the damage was more than $16 billion, the bank said.

Indonesia has since boosted efforts to ban the use of fire to clear forested peatlands to plant oil palms, maize or rice by establishing the Peatland Restoration Agency in 2016.

Legislation banning fire use to clear land was introduced in 2009 and 2014.

Research compiled in Riau province by Indonesia’s Forestry and Environment Research, Development and Innovation Agency (FOERDIA) of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MOEF) shows that land prepared by burning vegetation before planting is more productive. They examined peatlands cultivated for oil palm, rubber, corn, rice, and other food crops.

Oil palm yield in burned peatlands was found to be almost 30 percent greater than in those that were not, producing yields of about 13.3 tons per hectare a year. In peatlands that were not burned, yield was only 9.4 tons per hectare a year. Rubber tree yields were found to decrease on average by 46 percent if the land was not burned. Corn yield disparities were even more extreme.

Burning resulted in higher soil fertility in the peatlands. It also reduced acidity, contributing to the higher yields.

Aware of the yield benefits, many farmers involved in the study disregarded prohibitive legislation and burned off their fields. Of the study participants, only 49.3 percent stopped the practice, while 45.2 percent of respondents continued and 5.5 percent said they would give up on farming as they did not see any alternative to burning.

“Some farmers are unwilling to cultivate corn without burning since the yield will drop sharply and produce only a third or a quarter,” said Murniati, a scientist with FOERDIA.

“They were afraid to use the burning techniques but they don’t have enough money to finance the no-burning techniques,” Murniati added, explaining that farmers are scared of incurring penalties for violating anti-burning laws but feel they have no choice but to face the risk.

SEEKING ALTERNATIVES

Since he got involved in sustainable agriculture, Taman has trained hundreds of farmers.  He adds fertile soil, dolomite, and manure to his land and plants a variety of crops, including corn, chili, and vegetables.

Initially, the cost of farming in this manner may seem more expensive, but over the long term it saves him money, Taman said, explaining the environmental benefits.

Although burning more resistant vegetation is a less expensive and easier solution, it can strip nutrient levels in the soil and spoil the peatlands in the long run.

As farmers, we need more support for infrastructure to lower costs, Taman said.

“We at least need proper roads and bridges in our village to cut distribution expenses,” he added. “It can help us big time.”

Currently, poor infrastructure causes high costs for herbicides and harvested crops. Farmers are forced to rent cars to cover a short 250-meter distance because trucks cannot fit into narrow roadways.

Finding other livelihood options might be key for helping local communities thrive while conserving peatlands, according to Dede Rohadi and Herry Purnomo, scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) currently working with MOEF and several partners.

The Haze Free Sustainable Livelihoods project led by CIFOR, MOEF and the University of Lancang in Riau aims to find alternatives for farmers who cultivate crops in the province.

“We try to empower communities so they can maximize the existing livelihood potentials in their village,” said Rohadi, who leads the project.

Some villages already cultivate honey, develop fisheries and grow food crops such as chili peppers and pineapples.

In addition to the Haze-free Sustainable Livelihood project, CIFOR is currently coordinating the Community-based Fire Prevention and Peatland Restoration project with Riau University, local government, communities, and the private sector.

The latest commitment from the governments of Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo, to establish the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC) promise for peatland preservation efforts. ITPC is currently based at CIFOR in Bogor, near Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

It provides valuable opportunities for cooperation in the global south to ensure policymakers, practitioners, and communities have access to trustworthy information, analyses, and the tools needed to conserve and sustainably manage tropical peatlands.

Although peatlands extend over only 3 percent of the world’s land mass, they contain as much carbon as all terrestrial biomass and twice as much as all forest biomass.

About 15 percent of known peatlands have already been destroyed or degraded.

‘Transboundary Haze’: The Seasonal Pollution Plaguing Southeast Asia

‘Transboundary Haze’: The Seasonal Pollution Plaguing Southeast Asia

2018/11/08, Environment | By Helena Varkkey

Transboundary haze is a form of seasonal air pollution affecting up to six Southeast Asian countries on an almost annual basis.

The first reports of this phenomenon emerged in the 1980s, and the most recent serious episode took place in 2016. The most affected countries are Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. The particulate and aerosol matter that makes up the haze originates from forest and peat fires occurring during the dry season, mostly in Indonesia. When this permeates the troposphere and travels across national borders, it is known as transboundary haze.

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People take photos near the Singapore Flyer observatory wheel shrouded by haze, Aug 26, 2016.

The countries and people within reach of this smoky shroud suffer serious health, economic, and environmental consequences during each episode. The fine particles in the haze permeate deep into the lungs, which can cause serious respiratory problems, especially among young children and the elderly, sometimes resulting in death. Ophthalmological, dermatological, and psychological issues are also commonplace.

Sick days taken and school closures (during which parents often stay home to care for their children) cause significant losses in workforce productivity. These countries’ tourism industries suffer as well, as visitors have no interest in hazy skylines. Agricultural productivity and the general state of the environment also decline as the haze blocks out the sun and slows down photosynthesis.

Whither the weather solution?

With the countries affected all situated within the Southeast Asian region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was quickly looked upon to be the driver of a workable regional solution to the haze. ASEAN began to formally identify transboundary haze as part of its remit in 1985. However, despite various ASEAN agreements, initiatives, and task forces since then, the haze persists. The haze’s effect on member countries is dire, and its causes are seemingly well understood, so ASEAN’s continued inability to effectively mitigate it is puzzling.

Scholars have laid the blame for ASEAN’s “failure” to solve the haze on weak regional governance; specifically, the limitations of its model of regional engagement through consensus, non-interference, non-confrontation, sensitivity, and politeness, as well as non-legalistic procedures – the so-called “ASEAN Way.” Describing this model as a “doctrine” to be adhered to at all costs, scholars such as Vinod Aggarwal and Jonathan Chow argue that member states’ desire to eliminate the haze has been unable to compete against the stronger desire to comply with the ASEAN Way.

However, other ASEAN observers, such as Tobias Nischalke and Shaun Narine, have argued that member states do not blindly follow the ASEAN Way. Nischalke’s research uncovered many examples where the ASEAN Way was only moderately adhered to at best. This contention was the entry point of my research: has ASEAN been failing on the haze because states are duty-bound to adhere to norms that do not encourage effective regional environmental governance? Or have the states been choosingto adhere to these norms because it is in their interests to do so? If so, what are these interests, who has been shaping them, and why are they not in line with a haze-free ASEAN?

It’s the peat, stupid!

To answer these questions, I spent six months in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia conducting semi-structured interviews with over 100 individuals with experience in haze governance, including government and ASEAN officials, journalists, plantation company representatives, non-governmental organization workers, and academics.

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Fires on palm oil plantations, such as this one in Jebus village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are responsible for a great deal of transboundary haze.

During these conversations, several points became clear.

Firstly, the type of fire matters. While regular forest fires are most common, they usually burn tree canopies. This produces little smoke and often results only in short-term, localized haze. Peat fires, on the other hand, can spread below the surface, reaching soil. Carbon-rich soil produces especially thick and sooty smoke when burnt, and this smoke can travel great distances. These fires are also harder to put out. Hence, a small amount of fires (on peatlands) are responsible for a large portion of transboundary haze.

Secondly, peat is not naturally fire-prone. In their natural state, peatlands are flooded year-round – fires only occur when peatlands are drained in preparation for planting. This dries out the peat and makes it flammable.

Thirdly, due to the importance of peatlands as carbon sinks, Indonesian law generally does not allow these areas to be developed. Despite this, and due to the decreasing availability of mineral soil, an increasing amount of peatlands have been opened for agriculture, especially for palm oil. A trend emerged, where the increasing severity of the haze matched the region’s palm oil boom in recent decades.

Hazy networks

Further interviews revealed that large plantation companies, both local and from Malaysia or Singapore, have managed to obtain licenses to access peatlands to plant crops like oil palm. Some of these companies deliberately use fire as the cheapest and quickest way to clear the land for planting. Even if these companies do not deliberately burn, the act of draining these lands makes them prone to accidental fires.

I found that strong patronage networks in this sector have enabled this to happen. Patronage is defined as a situation where an individual of higher socioeconomic position (patron) uses his influence and resources to provide protection or benefits for a person of lower status (client), who reciprocates by offering support and assistance to the patron. In this case, government patrons have provided the benefit of licenses to their clients, the business elites who own or are affiliated with these plantation companies. Furthermore, clients have also enjoyed their patrons’ protection from prosecution for haze-producing fires.

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A woman looks towards the Prime Minister’s office, which is shrouded in haze, in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Oct 6, 2015.

These networks are at work even at the ASEAN level. When they represent Indonesia at ASEAN, the patrons are still compelled to protect their clients. An effective ASEAN haze mitigation strategy would mean that their clients would lose access to lucrative income, and risk being prosecuted. Hence, these patrons choose to use the ASEAN Way, especially the principles of non-interference and non-legalistic procedures, to block any meaningful strategies. Malaysian and Singaporean patrons follow suit, as they also act to protect their own complicit companies. I argue that these patronage networks better explain the decisions made at the ASEAN level that have led to the failure of the bloc to solve the haze problem.

Blue skies ahead?

Since my field research, there have been some positive developments. The government of Singapore has shown a shift in its national interests, away from protecting its clients and toward the well being of its people. After several public displays of frustration with ASEAN’s lackadaisical efforts, Singapore ultimately passed its landmark Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in 2014, which empowered its courts to prosecute any party (even non-Singaporean) found to have caused haze in Singapore.

Singapore, however, has not yet been able to use this act in court, largely due to the non-cooperation of Indonesia. While ASEAN member states still meet regularly to strategize on haze matters, the strategic use of the ASEAN Way continues to limit any meaningful progress. However, as Singapore has shown, change is not impossible. I remain hopeful that other member states will eventually follow in Singapore’s footsteps to act in the common interest of the people of the region.

Helena Varkkey is a senior lecturer in the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya. She received her PhD in international relations from the University of Sydney in 2012 and her first book, “The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage,” was published by Routledge based on the above research in 2016.

Read Next: INDONESIA: Palm Oil Linked to Deforestation Remains on Store Shelves

This article was originally published in AsiaGlobal Online, a Hong Kong-based source of Asian perspectives on global issues. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

Source Link: https://international.thenewslens.com/article/107781