A hazy climate: Will anyone do the right thing?

– Daniel Murdiyarso and Luca Tacconi
The Malaysian Insider
June 23, 2013

We write with a strong sense of déjà vu. Over 10 years ago, one of us published a letter in The Jakarta Post titled Fires: stop blaming others, just start acting! The cause of the haze that is affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore has not changed since then; it is clear: Plantation companies deliberately light fires in degraded peatland areas on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

They use fire because it is the cheapest way to clear land. But, in particularly dry years, the peat below ground also catches fire and it continues to smolder for months, generating thick and noxious haze. It can quickly cause headaches, nausea and respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly.

In that letter, we identified that fire was being used not only as a tool to clear land cheaply but also as a weapon to claim property ownership when Indonesia’s governance system was more centralized than it is today.

The recurrence of fire and trans-boundary haze was then, and remains today, not only a problem but also a symptom of complex governance issues.

Indonesian politicians and bureaucrats say that fire is a natural phenomenon, like recent major outbreaks of fire in Australia and the United States. It is true that Indonesia’s peatl ands experience fires that go out of control in severe El Niño events.

But most of the fires of past decades were deliberately lit by companies or their agents to clear land for the development of plantation crops.

Like they did over ten years ago when we first wrote about this, those politicians and bureaucrats are asking for collaboration in putting out the fires and prosecuting those responsible. However, a commitment to action seems not to persist beyond the haze itself. Indonesia has prosecuted relatively few companies during the past two decades for lighting the fires that choke its own citizens and those of neighboring countries.

There are two clear starting points for Indonesia to demonstrate that it is serious about addressing these fires.

First, it should prosecute the companies that lit the fires; Indonesia has the technology and the enforcement capacity to do so.

Second, it should ratify the ASEAN treaty on trans-boundary haze; its neighbors have been waiting patiently for this over the past twelve years.

Singapore and Malaysia, where many plantation companies operating in Indonesia are based, should also be holding their companies accountable.

By not adequately addressing the issue of fires in peatlands, Indonesia is undermining a commitment made by President Yudoyono to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

Peatland conversion accounts for about 40 percent of Indonesia’s total annual emissions. These emissions are caused not only by fires like those currently burning in Sumatra, but also by the slow decomposition of peat in millions of hectares of degraded areas, which have been drained for different reasons over past decades. Rehabilitating those areas is the best way to prevent fires and peat decomposition, because wet peat does not burn or decompose.

That is a truly major and challenging task, which requires international cooperation, targeted research, innovative practice and a commitment of resources.

One of the first initiatives to address this challenge was supported by Australia, which has been supporting peatland conservation and rehabilitation by funding the Kalimantan Forest Conservation Partnership (KFCP) in an area that was worst affected by the haze of 1997–1998.

This project was intended to demonstrate how to conserve peatlands and rehabilitate degraded ones by blocking a series of canals that had drained the peat for a failed agricultural development project initiated by former President Soeharto

Unfortunately, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) will be closing down and withdrawing from the project without having had sufficient time and opportunity to demonstrate how to block even a single canal.

This is despite the fact that the engineering plans had passed all the regulatory approval steps (including the environmental impact assessment and extensive community consultation processes), the tenders for the work had been issued, and the relevant Indonesian ministries had asked AusAID to continue the project.

This premature termination of KFCP, prompted by political opposition to the project by some Australian politicians, means that the basic field research necessary to reduce future haze events is likely to be lost. It also means that Indonesian policy makers, land managers and peatland communities are left without practical strategies for rehabilitating cleared peatlands. Perhaps the visit next month of Australia’s Prime Minister with Indonesia’s President will offer Indonesia an opportunity to ask Australia to review that decision.

Transboundary haze is a transboundary issue. Each of Indonesia and its immediate neighbors have important roles to play in addressing it. We hope they will do so more effectively now than in the past. – June 23, 2013 – The Jakarta Post

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 1:32 am

    ///Indonesia has prosecuted relatively few companies during the past two decades for lighting the fires…///

    This is not surprising as corruption is rampant in Indonesia.

  2. #2 by Winston on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 8:17 am

    What the countries in this region is facing is the Neighbour From Hell issue.
    Since the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia is very unlikely to act, the people of this country, the government of Singapore and perhaps the NGOs in Indonesia should come together to work out a common plan to take whatever action is necessary.

  3. #3 by Winston on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 8:46 am

    What will those who cast their votes for UMNO/BN think about the haze issue?
    Still thinking that it is a benign government with the interests of the people at heart?
    Or consider them as mass murderers?
    Or serial killers?
    Serves these stupid voters right that they are being slaughtered just like anyone else!!!
    Because the haze don’t differentiate between UMNO/BN or PR voters!!!

  4. #4 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 10:45 am

    Shuddup all of you!!

    What will be done and whether anything will be done at all are all matters pertaining to umno’s ketuanan right.

    So dont ask and never question. Ever!

  5. #5 by danwhw on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 11:29 am

    this hazy thingy is not something new. just that nobody really look deep into it until now when the worse hit us. standard ‘malaysia boleh’ style, as long as nobody die..as it is la..

  6. #6 by worldpress on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 11:48 am

    Yes, they did

    It said they don’t care much about Malaysian Health

  7. #7 by negarawan on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 1:47 pm

    There is already more than enough data from more than two decades to support the fact that Indonesian palm oil plantations are mostly responsible for the haze. It is high time to start an international campaign to boycott and embargo all palm oil products originating from Indonesia.

  8. #8 by cinaindiamelayubersatu on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 9:13 pm

    tokok dari pihak berkuasa,
    1. Jangan on kipas on aircond. Berapa isirumah di malaysia boleh yang ada aircond seluruh rumah?
    2. On air purifier. Berapa isirumah di malaysi boleh yang ada air purifier?

    Ohh, hanya ahli barisan najis yang sememangnya berkemampuan aje yang ada…

  9. #9 by tak tahan on Monday, 24 June 2013 - 10:31 pm

    bodoh punya tokok,hanya orang sebaya mu paham.cari la jalan yg lebih cerdik,mesti ada…takde..you pi podah la

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