Less chance of Indonesian forest fire haze this year: officials

Indonesian leaders say there is less chance of haze from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan affecting the region this year as a result of strong cooperation to tackle the issue among Southeast Asian countries.

The numbers of fire hotspots in Riau province has declined about 70 percent in West Kalimantan province, between January and July, compared to the same period in 2014, they said.

Meranti district, for example, which had 20 hotspots in March last year, has had none this year, said Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya.

“It shows that [peatland] areas can be managed with good water management. It is clear that if peats are not dried and (kept) wet, fires can be put off,” he said this week in Jakarta, at a meeting of a regional working group on managing transboundary haze.

Haze pollution from land and forest fires first became a regional issue in the late 1990s, when thick smoke coming from Indonesian provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan blanketed neighboring countries, especially Singapore and Malaysia.

Cutting and burning forest to open land for agriculture was considered the primary cause.

A 2003 study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) estimated that economic losses from haze affecting transportation in the region amounted to $1.62 to $2.7 billion in 1997-98, and losses from other smoke pollution were between $674 million and $799 million.

Those losses resulted in rising politician tensions among countries in the region.

But  in 2002, nine countries in Southeast Asia region, — Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – signed the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, pledging to work together to deal with smoke from land and forest fires.

Indonesia, however, did not ratify the agreement until  September 2014, delayed by concerns about sovereignty issues.

After ratifying the agreement, Indonesia moved  to tackle haze issues, including installing bulkheads in peatland canals to retain water, using aircraft to fight fires, trying cloud seeding to trigger rain and stepping up law enforcement against burning forest.

Nurbaya said improvements had also come through working together with other countries in the region, particularly Malaysia and Singapore.

“We have already taken many steps to anticipate haze, through coordination and law enforcement,” he said. Indonesia’s government has also started legal action against companies that illegally burn land or forest,” she said.

Other countries in the region in turn applauded Indonesia’s ratification of the anti-haze agreement.

 “I am very encouraged that Indonesia has already ratified the ASEAN Transboundary haze (agreement). This means we are now all united and have a common platform to collaborate in action,” said Vivian Balakrishnan, Sinagpore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, speaking in Jakarta.

During a visit to Riau at the end of 2014, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo called for an end to haze in 2015 and instructed that canals that drain water from peatland areas be blocked.

Dry peat is prone to fires that are difficult to put out, and a major source of haze.

“I am very hopeful based on the number of hotspots over these six months that there is effective fire prevention,” said Balakrishnan.

Too early to relax

However, Yuyun Indradi, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, said it was too early to claim success as the lack of smoke in the early part of the year might be the result of changes in the timing of burning or weather patterns.

“This year’s hotspots were lower than last year but we have yet to enter the peak of dry season. So, it’s too early to tell,” Indradi said.

He praised progress in international cooperation on the issue, and better studies on peatlands and fires. But “the impacts are still minimal,” he said.

What is needed, he said, is to establish a regional platform on hotspot monitoring – and more  political will.

“Singapore and Malaysia (governments) must also assume responsibility to ensure that their companies (doing business in Indonesia) comply with Indonesian regulation. They also need to ensure these companies have standard equipment to prevent fires on the ground,” he said.

Despite the progress, Minister Balakrishnan of Singapore said the refusal by Indonesia and Malaysia to make public data from land concession maps was hurting the ASEAN Haze Monitoring System (AMHS), which is hosted by Singapore.

Indonesia’s land concession maps show the coordinates of concessions, their size, how long they have been operating and their owners,

 “The software is already running. The only thing missing is the concession maps,” Balakrishnan said.

 If the maps were publicly available, he said, they could drive stronger law enforcement against companies that cause large fires.

Minister Nurbaya of Indonesia said that under the country’s constitution it could not release the maps. Instead, countries have agreed to share information on hotspots without the maps, he said.

But Indradi said concessions maps data was key to pursuing legal charges against companies illegally burning land.

“It would give a strong signal to companies that they are being monitored, which hopefully would make them manage their land accordingly,” he said.

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