Indonesia set to ratify haze amidst raging fires in Riau

As the province of Riau continues to be enveloped in haze caused by the burning of forests, the Indonesian parliament has finally agreed to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution

Forest fires in Riau 2014
Haze coming from RIau in Indonesia have started early this year due to an early dry season that triggered forest fires in the province known for palm oil and paper and pulp plantations. Image: Reuters / Fikih Auli, via The Irrawaddy

The parliament of Indonesia on Monday finally agreed to ratify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution – almost 12 years since the treaty was first adopted by member states.

The decision comes on the heels of a fresh haze crisis in Riau, Sumatra, where a thick blanket of smoke has stalled flights, closed schools, and affected more than 22,000 people with respiratory problems.

The agreement, which has already been ratified by the nine other member countries as of 2010, seeks to monitor and mitigate forest fires that cause widespread air pollution. Indonesia is the sole Asean country that has not ratified the agreement due to previous objections on the infringement of sovereignty.

Annas Maamum, the governor of the province of Riau, which is the centre of the haze resulting from the burning of dry forests and clearing of lands for palm oil and paper and pulp plantations, declared a state of emergency last week. He reportedly appealed to the central government for assistance to combat the fires.

At the parliament, parties representing almost 65 per cent of lawmakers agreed to ratify the Asean Haze Agreement. Only the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) declined to support the treaty, again citing the issues of breaching sovereignty. These two political groups are against allowing fire fighters from Asean countries to enter Indonesian soil and extinguish fires.

Protecting the nation’s jurisdicition, however, is a top priority and battling the haze through the agreement and help of other countries will be for Indonesia’s benefit, said Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya in a report by The Jakarta Post. 

Monitoring the fires

Currently, on the ground and aerial efforts have been undertaken in Riau to end the forest and peatland fires, according to the Riau Haze Emergency Relief Taskforce.

A total of 1,449 “high confidence” fire alerts (fires detected by NASA with a certainty of 30 per cent or higher, based on brightness and heat produced) were identified in Sumatra from February 20 to March 3, said the World Resources Institute, a Washington DC-based environmental organisation. 

These fire alerts, from NASA’s Active Fire Data, are detected using the NASA MODIS satellites that survey the entire Earth every one to two days, explained James Anderson, forest communications officer at WRI, to Eco-Business. “The sensors on these satellites detect the heat signatures of fires within the infrared spectral band and when the satellite imagery is processed, an algorithm searches for fire-like signatures. When a fire is detected, the system indicates the one square-kilometre where the fire occurred with an ‘alert’,” he added.

WRI, which recently launched Global Forest Watch, an online site that monitors worldwide forest loss and gain in near-real time through this system and other data made available to them, such as from the Indonesian government, pointed out how “roughly half of these fires are burning on land managed by oil palm, timber, and logging companies”. This is “despite the fact that using fire to clear land is illegal in Indonesia”, they underscored. 

The forest fires and the resulting haze in Indonesia are known to be a yearly occurrence that affects not only the country, but also neighbouring nations like Malaysia and Singapore. The fires are said to be a result of the dry season that takes place every year from April to October. The current dry spell, however, is unusually early and is already one of the driest on records, the WRI noted.

These forest fires also largely attributed to the billion-dollar palm oil and paper and pulp industries, which have large tracts of concession areas in Riau, among other provinces in Indonesia. Slash and burn is a common and cheap method to clear away land for new farms and plantations.

Building momentum

Last June, the forest clearing caused the worst haze crisis in the region of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in decades. Public ire, NGO campaigns, and political action have since gained momentum, with several companies declaring zero deforestation policies and the Asean closing in on their haze treaty.

Environment Minister Kambuaya even expressed hope that the country will be able to ratify the agreement before the upcoming Asean meeting on transboundary haze in April, reported Today Online.

Meanwhile, Singapore is working on a new legislation that that would allow it to impose fines on local and international firms that cause transboundary haze that affect the city-state. These companies will have to pay fines of up to US$238,000 for such a violation, based on the current draft bill.

According to the WRI team, “This is a rather small fine for the large companies that operate in Indonesia, but the potential impact on their reputations sends a strong signal that businesses need to do a better job of fire prevention.”

Separately, Singapore-based paper and pulp firm APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Limited) announced on Tuesday its new measures to help address the forest fire emergency in Sumatra. They will deploy an additional 200 fire fighters to their original 400-strong group and provide three helicopters and 30 water pumps to the government’s fire fighting efforts.

This is in addition to the online forest fire tracking system the firm launched on Monday. Their company blog called APRIL Dialog will host daily reports of on the ground inspection of their concessions, which will include: a map of active fires; the origin, cause and size of each blaze; and, the status of the fire fighting action.

Anderson, when asked whether WRI would align their Global Forest Watch initiative with APRIL’s system, said: “Independent monitoring systems, such as those used by APRIL and the Asean, are important for managing and responding to fires effectively. Global Forest Watch is not currently partnering with APRIL on their fire monitoring system, but would welcome the public sharing of the data.”

APRIL’s efforts follow the Sustainable Forest Management Policy they began toward the end of January. Greenpeace International noted that this was “just weeks after being threatened to be kicked out of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development” due to deforestation practices.

The APRIL policy does not contain a “commitment to implement an immediate moratorium on all natural forest clearance and peatland development in its suppliers’ concessions”, said Greenpeace.

Singapore-listed palm oil firm Golden Agri Resources, on the other hand, announced on Friday its growing commitment to zero deforestation, with the firm extending its Forest Conservation Policy across all its third-party suppliers. These series of corporate social responsibility commitments picked up pace starting from the no deforestation policy started by largest palm oil trader Wilmar International last December.

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