Friday, 19 June 2009

Blaze and haze in nation's forests must be stamped out for good

Jonathan Wootliff | Tue, 06/16/2009 The Jakarta Post

We've arrived at that worrying time of the year when asphyxiating haze rears its ugly head in Sumatra and Kalimantan. As the dry season arrives, fires are again starting to spread, threatening to cause untold damage to people's health and to the environment. Despite efforts by Indonesia to curb the use of slash-and-burn methods to clear land for planting, that awful acrid smoke has come back to wreak it annual havoc.

Over the past few weeks, there's been a sharp increase in the number of patients visiting hospitals complaining of haze-related ailments such as respiratory problems and sore eyes.

There have been reports of visibility dropping to as low as 30 meters in parts of the province of Riau and some of the schools have been temporarily shut.

And this perennial problem is causing alarm in nearby Malaysia and Singapore where residents have to endure choking smoke that's spread by the wind. It's become something of a sick joke on the streets, where Singaporeans say that haze is Indonesia's biggest export.

While both neighboring countries offer valuable help to extinguish out-of-control fires, it is surely the primary responsibility of Indonesia to fix this perennial problem. As helpful as firefighting may be, measures are urgently needed to prevent the blazes from starting in the first place.

A wide range of factors drive these fires and the resulting haze. But the solutions are not so easy. Care has to be taken to avoid harming the societies and economies in Sumatra and other islands for the 20 million Indonesians who depend on forests for their livelihoods.

The prestigious Center for International Forestry (CIFOR) says that one of the causes is the large areas of forest land that have been allocated for conversion to other uses, without ensuring adequate support mechanisms for environmentally sound land-clearing practices are properly in place.

Law enforcement efforts have been compromised by confusion over which government agencies are responsible for fire-related crimes, and incentives for compliance undermined by weak law enforcement, the organization attests.

CIFOR points to the decentralization of government authority leading to more stakeholders involved in forestry decision-making process than was the case in the 1990s, rendering obsolete top-down implementation of national-level forest polices.

It also explains that fire is commonly perceived by local farmers as a necessary tool; with fire management efforts often focused more on suppression rather than prevention.

Experts at the Bogor-based institution say that money is all-too-often used for ineffective firefighting technologies at the expense of attention to tacking the underlying causes.

The region has been hit by haze almost every year since 1997. That year, fires set to clear land burned catastrophically out of control, fuelled by the El Nino weather phenomenon. The ensuing smoke blanketed much of Southeast Asia in a choking haze.

Some experts are voicing concern that a similar problem could arise this year.

Although the Indonesian Forestry Ministry believes this risk to be overstated, the US-based Climate Prediction Center has said that another El Nino pattern, which can produce chaotic conditions that result in droughts and floods, could develop.

But there has been some encouraging news on the fire prevention front in Sumatra over the past few years. Since as early as 1994, one of the largest commercial forestry managers on the island has been committed to a "Zero-Burn" policy. Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) is a leading developer of fiber plantations with one of the world's largest pulp and paper mills located near Pangkalan Kerinci in Riau Province in Central Sumatra.

Having developed in excess of 270,000 hectares of plantations, the company strictly ensures that fire is never used for any land clearance. Instead, APRIL minimizes wood waste from tree harvesting by ensuring high wood utilization for pulp and paper production, using manual and mechanical equipment to prepare land for planting.

APRIL's fire protection program is based on constant preparedness, early detection, rapid response and effective containment and control procedures.

The company, which sets aside vast sections of forest deemed to be of high conservation value, has invested millions of dollars in specialized firefighting equipment to protect the areas under its management.

All of its estates maintain a high level of preparedness by conducting fire patrols, using high-pressure water pumps for extinguishing fires, and cooperating with its contractors to use heavy equipment to construct fire control lines where needed. Aerial firefighting resources are used to support ground-based efforts.

The company also engages with the local community and educates farmers in "no burn" farming techniques, actively discouraging the dangerous practice of "slash and burn".

It is certainly encouraging to learn that one of Indonesia's largest managers of conservation forests is so proactive in stopping Sumatra's much unwanted blaze and haze.

Let's hope that this company's actions provide inspiration to others and can galvanize the authorities in escalating their efforts to eliminate the scourge of forest fires throughout Indonesia.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development con-sultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at