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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Know your enemy” is a perfect motto for wildland firefighters. The brave souls who’ve chosen this line of work understand its many dangers. Forest fires are not their only source of trouble: One of the biggest challenges these men and women can face is an out-of-control peatland swamp fire. Don’t let the standing water fool you: Bogs and swamps are fertile terrains for a tenacious, sneaky kind of inferno that smolders underground and might spend years lurking beneath the surface.
For Peat’s Sake
Recognized as one of the American South’s greatest natural wonders, the vast Okefenokee Swamp rests on the Georgia-Florida border. In 2007, lightning and a felled power line sparked a plague of converging wildfires in and around this storied wetland. More than 926 square miles (2,398 square kilometers) worth of vegetation were torched in the Okefenokee’s two home states. Huge columns of town-smothering smoke could be seen from Atlanta to Orlando. By the time the crisis ended, it had cost the citizenry an estimated $130 million in damages and firefighting expenses.
The Okefenokee is accustomed to this sort of thing. Prior to ’07, the swamp had endured massive fires in 1844, 1860, 1910, 1932, 1954 and 1955. History repeated itself once again in 2011 when another round of brushfires terrorized the swamp for more than eleven months straight.
There’s a reason why this boggy area — a lush place that’s teeming with fish, alligators and aquatic plants — gets so many fires. And that reason is peat.
Peat is a carbon-rich, organic turf that covers 3 percent of the world’s land surface. About 50 to 70 percent of all wetlands, including the Okefenokee Swamp, is situated above large deposits of this material. Its main ingredient is dead plant matter that hasn’t fully decomposed. Remains of other deceased organisms are also contained within blocks of peat, along with minerals absorbed in the local sediment.
To get peat, you generally need an area where there’s little water beneath the ground and microorganisms in the soil are creating an anaerobic — or low-oxygen — environment. As more and more organisms die off, peat steadily accumulates over hundreds or thousands of years. Forests and wetlands can form over these peat sheets, the thickest of which are more than 50 feet (15.2 meters) deep. It’s thought that the oldest peats on the planet started forming 12,000 years ago — right after the last ice age.
Smoldering Real Estate
Pressure from above slowly drives peat deeper into the Earth, where it eventually becomes coal. And like that prized mining commodity, peat harbors a lot of trapped carbon from dead life forms. In fact, peat plays host to a third of all the carbon that’s stored inside the world’s soils. All this carbon renders the substance highly flammable. Even damp peat makes for good kindling when water makes up less than 55 percent of its total weight.
A spark at the surface might be all that’s required to ignite the peat under a swamp or forest. Whereas living trees burst into licks of orange flame, peat catches fire in a less dramatic way: It smolders like a lit cigarette. Once they get started, peat fires move at a gradual pace, creeping along through the substrate. The slow burns have been known to last for years before getting extinguished. They can also reach the surface, setting some trees or bushes ablaze. It’s not unheard-of for a peat fire to do exactly that and then retreat back underground, only to reappear later on. In 2014, seven Canadian peat fires caused surface-level damage and then went under before they resurfaced the following year.
Fires liberate the trapped carbon, sending it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. This has the unfortunate effect of triggering longer dry seasons in places where peat bogs naturally occur, making them more likely to ignite. It’s a nasty feedback loop — and a big contributor to our climate change problems.
What’s more, smoke from these fires aggravates respiratory problems for those who inhale it. A 2015 outbreak of the bog burnings in southeast Asia led to dense, low-lying clouds of haze. We don’t know how many deaths this caused, but one team of researchers came up with a tentative figure of 100,300 fatalities distributed between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Fighting back isn’t easy. Sometimes, you can smother a peatland fire by pumping water into the turf, but this technique requires a huge amount of time, effort, and planning. Waiting for them to die of natural causes is an exercise in frustration. As we’ve established, it can take months or years for one of these fires to burn through its fuel supply. Intense rainstorms have been known to put them out, but if the peat gets struck by lightning, that can make it smolder again.