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  • Asia-Pacific Analysis: Ending Indonesia's forest fires

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Speed read

  • The illegal fires are caused by agricultural firms and farmers clearing land

  • The fires harm neighbouring nations and produce greenhouse gases

  • Public data on land ownership would help to tackle the blazes

Indonesia's forest fires raged again for most of June, choking residents of much of Sumatra, where the fires are burning, as well as residents of Singapore and large parts of Malaysia. They also renewed a running debate on one of the crucial environmental issues facing South-East Asia. 
 
A predictable annual ritual in past decades, the latest Indonesian fires forced an early 15th meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur on 17 July. The committee includes the environmental ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. [1]
 
At the meeting, which was originally scheduled for August, Indonesia promised to ratify a regional treaty by early next year to prevent forest fires. Indonesia is the only ASEAN member yet to ratify the bloc's Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution negotiated in 2002.
 
The treaty aims to eliminate transborder haze from forest fires by requiring signatory governments to stop burning, monitor prevention efforts, exchange information and help each other.
 
Agricultural drivers
 
Signing the treaty, however, will not put an automatic stop to the fires in Indonesia, which occur every year from May to September.
 
These fires are largely blamed on palm oil plantations, logging firms and farmers, all of whom resort to burning vast tracts of rainforest and peatlands to clear them for planting.
 
The first impact of the fires away from the forest is a spike in air pollution in Sumatra, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — reaching levels hazardous to human health.
 
For example, the Pollution Standard Index for air pollution in Singapore reached a record high of 400 in June, way above the 226 reading during the massive forest fires of 1998 and the 100 level generally accepted as the maximum for healthy air quality. [2]
 
The pollution also led to huge economic impacts: lost hours of work or learning in offices and schools that had to be closed, dollars lost as tourists stayed away, lost business and commerce in the countries directly affected, and the cost of providing medical care for the victims of the haze. And that's not counting the valuable timber gone up in smoke and the cost of environmental destruction.
 
A global concern

On top of these local and regional impacts, the fires add to global warming and, eventually, climate change — making Indonesian infernos a global concern. At its peak, the smoke from the Sumatra fires was visible from outer space.
 
To make matters worse, "the fires originate in one of Earth's carbon super-sinks: peat swamps", according to University of Hawaii PhD students Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher. [3]. "Hidden underneath Sumatra's lowland rain forests are thousands of years of partially rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water."

They added: "This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia's peat lands are drained and burned, one of the world's greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source."

Scientists estimate that Indonesia's 1997 fires, considered the worst ever, released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
 
This is equivalent to 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year, making Indonesia the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. [3]
 
What's the solution?
 
So what can be done to solve the problem and who can make it happen?
 
In last year's meeting of the steering committee in Bali, Indonesia, the ASEAN environment ministers agreed that digital maps showing who owns each bit of land should be shared among the ASEAN governments and agreed "to hold plantation companies and land owners responsible" [1] for illegal fires.
 
The ministers also noted that "greater transparency is required to make plantation companies and land owners more accountable" and that member states should "undertake more deterrent and effective enforcement measures against offenders".
 
The World Resources Institute, however, noted that this month's Ministerial Steering Committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur ended with mixed results.
 
In a statement, the institute said: "The Ministers recommended … sharing detailed land-use and concession maps that will help to pinpoint companies and others responsible for illegal burning. This proposal, however, has a key shortcoming: the maps will be shared only between governments and therefore kept secret from the public." [4]
 
Nigel Sizer, the director of the institute's Forests Initiative, explained that "publicly available concession data is essential for coordination between governments and local agencies, for contract compliance between commodity producers and their corporate customers, and for independent monitoring by researchers and civil society".
 
The ASEAN community and the Indonesian public, except perhaps for those living in Sumatra, have not been made sufficiently aware of these forest fires and their impact on the environment. It is time for a coordinated and sustained public information campaign by ASEAN and environmental activists to focus public attention on the problem and its possible solutions.
 
Indonesia must be open and take responsibility for the environmental time bomb ticking as a result of these forest fires which only further contribute to climate change.
 
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
 
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

References

[1] Sizer, N. Indonesia Haze Risk Will Remain High Unless Ministers Keep Promises (WRI Insights, originally in Jakarta Post, 17 July 2013)

[2] Austin, K. et al New Data Shows Indonesian Forest Fires A Longstanding Crisis (WRI Insights, 15 June 2013)
 
[3] Miles, W. and Fisher, M. Smoke over Sumatra: Why Indonesia's fires are of global concern (Mongabay.com, 26 June 2013)
 
[4] World Resources Institute STATEMENT: Company Concession Data Cannot Be Kept Secret (World Resources Institute, 17 July 2013)