A new normal in the battle against fire and haze

The reasons for forest fires are numerous and complex. With hotter and drier temperatures becoming the new normal in parts of the world, the solution is to work with companies, not against them, writes Sinar Mas’ Bernard Tan.

Every year, as the dry season approaches in Indonesia, “karhutla”, an Indonesian phrase for land and forest fires, becomes a major concern. With recent reports of devastating fires elsewhere, forest fires are perhaps a global, not local, concern.

In Greece, 91 people lost their lives this summer to forest fires. Sweden, Finland, and Latvia, countries close to the Arctic, have had a greater amount of area lost to fire than ever before. National Geographic reported that on average, the EU sees about 1,500 square miles of land burnt each year. Last year, it saw nearly three times more land area burned, killing 66 people in Portugal and Spain

Something has changed. For sure, rising temperatures and extreme aridity globally have increased the risk of fires on a scale that we have not faced in recent history. As an example, the El Nino phenomenon brought extreme dry conditions to many parts of Indonesia. In 2015, some parts of Indonesia did not receive a single drop of rain for over 120 days, an extremely rare occurrence in the tropics.

Another reason is land use change. The opening of land, especially peatlands, for commercial use has had an impact on the soil, the hydrology, and the natural cover of the land. The type of crops planted can also have an effect on the fire risk as some are more flammable than others. This has occurred globally, in no small part, due to our insatiable need for more raw materials, coupled with governments’ overwhelming desire to allow for economic progress through the development of more land. Historically, this was the way developed nations grew. Now, there are global efforts to stop emerging nations like Brazil, Ghana, and Indonesia from doing the same because of climate and habitat concerns.

The third cause is increased human activity, especially in developing countries, that gives rise to competing land use. This has resulted in conflict, illegal activity, and indiscriminate land use. Moreover, burning is regarded as not just a right, but as an effective way to clear land, refuse and pests, and to make the ground “more fertile” in many places, including Indonesia.

A holistic approach

Forest fires not only harm the environment – destroying ecological systems and important carbon sinks — but also affect the health of communities and have a negative impact on economic and commercial activity.

Despite the many possible reasons for forest fires, the cause of fires is commonly reduced to one single factor. There have been accusations that big commodity corporations are burning forests to clear land or are negligent in combating fires—acts that put their own standing stock at risk. This also ignores the fact that smallholders form a larger portion of the agriculture and forestry holdings globally and that fires do occur on these lands too.

Another common accusation is to blame a particular product—palm oil. Over the last two years, palm oil production in Southeast Asia has increased while the number of fire incidents has gone down. This also does not explain the rising amount of fires in Europe this summer.

The fact is that we are in a new normal of increased fire risks globally because of multiple changes as outlined above. Countries need to recalibrate their response to fires to manage this increased threat. Indonesia has collectively begun to do this across the board, and the government under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has embarked on a quiet war against open fires and burning. Regulation has placed obligations on firms to prevent and supress fires. The government has employed a mixture of incentives and disincentives to move towards a no-burning culture.

The holy grail is for cooperation between concession owners on a grander scale—to reach a stage where everyone recognises that fire is a common enemy, and that resources should be pooled and efforts coordinated to eliminate the threat together.

Companies are stepping up to support the effort and support in kind. Firms such as Asia Pulp & Paper and Golden Agri-Resources are working with local communities to promote alternative agricultural practices that do not involve burning. Companies also fund patrols and together with local police, civilian, and military officials, educate, and conduct surveillance and enforcement operations on high risk areas. In the plantations, firms have also blocked canals to raise water levels below the soil. This has a direct and long-term impact of reducing the likelihood of peatland fires, especially during the dry season.

Prevention is unlikely to be 100 per cent effective. So there is an equally large effort on fire detection and suppression. The 2015 lesson has been learned. The only way to prevent a reoccurrence of the devastating fires of 2015 is to stop burning and, if unsuccessful, to supress fires when they break out .

Over the last three years, responsible firms have committed large amounts of funding to detecting fires and to enabling a response with sufficient “firepower” to suppress fires quickly. These companies have doubled their firefighting forces, modernised the equipment used, digitised their command and control systems, and instituted a training regimen which is much more intense. It is now normal to see firefighting patrols or observation towers keeping an eye out for signs of fire and haze, helicopters practicing coordinated water bombing runs with forces on the ground, and excavators trawling the land, digging preventive ditches.

The holy grail is for cooperation between concession owners on a grander scale—to reach a stage where everyone recognises that fire is a common enemy, and that resources should be pooled and efforts coordinated to eliminate the threat together.

Indonesia is trying to balance its development with the protection of its environment. It is also battling an age-old cultural propensity for villagers to use fire for a variety of purposes. This endeavour is not easy. But collectively, it is trying. Many ask if this effort will last beyond the Asian Games or the Jokowi government. We can only say that with global support and encouragement, we expect that it will.

As we speak, there are sporadic fires all over Sumatra and in parts of Kalimantan because of dry weather conditions. There is definitely a higher risk of haze this year than previous years but Indonesia is better prepared today. This is down to the hard work by actors in Indonesia, from the government, to large companies, to communities, banding together to do the right thing for Indonesia, the region and the planet.

Bernard Tan is the Singapore Country President for Sinar Mas, of which Asia Pulp & Paper and Golden Agri Resources are part of.

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