Friday, 7 August 2009

Haze from forest fires is RI`s annual headache

Thursday, August 6, 2009

By Eliswan Azly

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - The chronic haze problem in Indonesia has to many people become like the classic puzzle of which came first into the world: chickens or chicken eggs.

Indonesia as the world`s largest archipelagic country with vast forest areas is routinely suffering from forest fires which the power elite consider a headache but are unable to solve once and for all.

This year, more severe forest fires are expected to happen in Indonesia because of an extended dry season, Blucer Dolok Pasaribu, the head of the meteorology agency in Riau`s provincial capital of Pekanbaru, said recently.

A rise in the flow of choking smoke blowing across neighboring countries in August was also unavoidable creating problems with those countries, he said. "As well as being unhealthy, the smog can cause major economic disruptions costing the tourism, transport and farming sectors billions of dollars."

"Haze is like an immune and incurable headache in Indonesia which always happens every year," he said.

With the peak of the dry season (in Riau) between June and August, the number of hotspots would automatically increase. The haze could even travel to Malaysia and Singapore with the wind coming from Australia to Asia.

In addition, haze and fog on Tuesday (Aug 4) were also reported to have blanketed Pekanbaru city, Dumai, Siak, Pelalawan, Indragiri Hulu, Rokan Hilir and Bengkalis in Riau province.

The thick fog which covered the city before noon had also lowered visibility and was affecting human health.

"The air which smells like smoke is also affecting our breath. Our eyes become irritated," Nasir (46), a civil servant working for the provincial administration said.

A resident, Nasir, was suffering so seriously of breathing problems and cough he had to seek medication at the Petala Bumi General Hospital.

"It seems many people are suffering from breathing problems and cough. No one can stand this dirty air," Nasir said.

Another resident, Anita from Bagansiapi-api, the Rokan Hilir district`s capital also complained about fog which again blanketing her residential area after a few days of free from weather problem.

"The thick smoke again permeats the air and reduces visibility," she said.

Meanwhile, haze and fog also blanketed the industrial town of Dumai due to forest and land fires. Ash particles were clearly flying in the air over the town, she said.

Thick fog also blanketed land traffic in the eastern part of Sumatra linking Pelalawan, Pekanbaru with North Sumatra.

In the meantime, Muaro Jambi, occupying a tenth of Jambi province on Sumatra Island, is an epicenter of the annual fires set to bushes as part of seasonal land clearing activity.

The practice of razing the land, which also takes place in Kalimantan (Borneo) is what gives rise to the smoky haze that has often choked Indonesia and neighboring countries over the past decade.

Indonesia has lost US$9 billion (RM32 billion) in tourism revenue and flights delayed or cancelled because of poor visibility.

But Indonesia`s argument has consistently been that it lacks the money and technical expertise to prevent or control the fires across its vast archipelago.

Jambi Governor Zulkifli Nurdin said slash-and-burn farming is practised out of necessity. It is a cheaper way for poor farmers to clear land for planting.

To make things worse, the country`s peatland releases carbon dioxide as it dries out. When set alight in the dry season, thick smoky plumes result.

The chief of the Jambi Natural Resources Conservation Center, Didy Wurdjanto, said local officials have found it difficult to convince farmers to stop the burning, especially when they cannot afford to buy machines to clear the land.

Equipment such as excavators and tractors can cost up to 1 billion rupiah, and the typical small-scale farmer makes at most only 2 million rupiah a year, said Afdhal Mahyuddin, a communications officer of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) in Riau, another fire-prone area in Sumatra.

Mahyuddin noted that while Indonesia has been effective in punishing small-scale landowners, companies with larger land concessions continue to get away with it.

Environmental groups say at least 70 percent of Sumatra`s forest fires come from land owned by plantation and paper-pulp companies.

But despite calls on Jakarta to impose stiffer penalties, few companies are prosecuted because of lack of evidence.

Environmentalists have also long alleged collusion and corruption between government officials and the companies.

According to Mahyuddin, the country`s headache becomes worse with the export of haze to Malaysia and Singapore as its neighbors.

The situation of haze in Riau had reached a serious level and strong winds blowing from the southeast to the northeast may bring the haze to Malaysia and Singapore.

The existing data on haze showed the number of hotspots in Sumatra based on satellite surveillance had fallen to 28 as of Sunday from 99 last week after rain, but on Kalimantan island the number of hot spots rose to 69 from 17 last week.

"If the weather remains dry, they (hot spots in Borneo) will gradually increase just like in Sumatra and will cause haze," Endarwin, head of extreme weather at Indonesia`s meteorology agency said.

The agency has so far not issued recommendations to stop flights because visibility was still above minimum level of 1,000 metres (3,280 ft), he said.

Maitar of Greenpeace criticised a government move earlier in the year to end a moratorium on allowing palm oil plantations and pulp companies to operate in peatlands.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned over an increasing trend towards converting peatland forests.

Once these areas are drained, peat soil is highly flammable, producing more smoke and carbon emissions than other soil types.(*)