There need not even be fires in the first place

The Strait Times, Singapore, 24 Oct 2006, by Fitrian Ardiansyah & Nazir Foead

FOREST fires and haze have caused major problems in Indonesia and its Asean neighbours in the past 10 years.

Last month alone, the hot spots were calculated to have numbered 26,561, the highest since August 1997, when 37,938 were counted.

The scale and frequency of the fires, and the haze they lead to, require serious consolidated efforts by both governments and society.

In September 2002, satellite information revealed that more than 75 per cent of the hot spots recorded in West and Central Kalimantan during August occurred in oil palm and timber plantations as well as forest concessions.

This year, a combination of plantation and timber companies, unresolved land tenure disputes as well as land clearing by a massive number of individuals are believed to be the main causes of the fires.

In terms of types of land, about 60 to 80 per cent of the haze since 1997-98 has been caused by fires on peatland. Based on analysis conducted by World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, most of the fires in Central Kalimantan in 2002 and 2003 took place on peatland, while in Sumatra’s Riau province, 67 per cent of the hot spots were on peatland during the 2001-2006 period.

And the number of peat fires is increasing. Riau had 36 per cent peat fires in 1997, which was boosted to 81 per cent last year. As more peat is burnt, more efforts are needed to put them out, and more haze is created.

Peatswamp forests are found in large areas of South- east Asia, especially Borneo and Sumatra. These forests appear in places where dead vegetation becomes water-logged and accumulates as peat, which acts as a sort of sponge that holds moisture in times of little rainfall and absorbs monsoon rains. When peatswamp forests are drained for logging or agriculture, they become highly susceptible to combustion and forest fires.

Conventional suppression approaches – putting out fires after they occur – are not adequate in dealing with this issue. The frequency of occurrence is increasing, as are the costs of firefighting. There is thus a pressing need for more comprehensive solutions.

The first approach is to focus on prevention measures that can minimise the risks of destructive fires.

Examples of such measures could include the ratification of the Asean Transboundary Haze Agreement by the Indonesian government, setting up monitoring systems and updating of databases, media campaigns as well as the promotion and adoption of zero- burning practices by holders of forest concessions, timber and oil palm plantations and smallholders.

A critical preventive measure is this: that the government needs to stop granting licences for land clearing on peatland.

Peatland clearing very often gives way to fires during the dry months. Many non- governmental organisations (NGOs) in Indonesia have asked the government to implement a moratorium on peatswamp forest conversion.

This can happen if investors also stop pressuring the Indonesian authorities to provide land for plantation development, in which case, peatland or natural forests are often the targets of conversion.

Financial institutions could develop robust investment screening policies to discourage such high-risk investment patterns. The consumer market should respond by favouring goods which are produced through guaranteed sustainable operations.

The second approach involves responses ranging from rapid firefighting tactics to longer-term management changes in forested landscapes and law enforcement.

Government bodies which are enforcing the fire laws – such as prosecuting those responsible for the fires – need all the support they can get.

Although some culprits have already been identified (involving suspected Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore-based companies), the prosecution of those involved remains a big challenge.

There is a need for joint work by relevant institutions and NGOs in Asean countries to help the authorities in cross-border evidence gathering, and then firmly prosecuting the offenders in each jurisdiction.

The third necessary approach is to rehabilitate the forests and land. Here, good agricultural practices which do not resort to fires to clear land are key. They not only reduce the risk of fires, but also allow local people to participate in more sustainable livelihoods.

To conclude, fighting forest fires need to go far beyond water bombing, which has proven ineffective anyway. The work ahead requires the cooperation of governments and various components of societies in Indonesia and other Asean countries.

Fitrian Ardiansyah is programme coordinator of forest restoration & threats mitigation, and Nazir Foead is director of policy and corporate engagement at World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia.

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