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How Asean and the World Need to Do More to Tackle Indonesia’s Fires

By Ali Zara

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Photo credit: ToGa Wanderings / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Haze on its own is already causing havoc to health and the economy, what more, coupled haze with the El Nino cycle when there’s hardly any rain in several months of the year as in 2015.

To be fair, a lot has been and is being done by governments of countries and other stakeholders to make things right. Yet, a lot more remains to be done to solve the issue of haze, for example, which drifts over to Malaysia from her Asean neighbor Indonesia, without fail, every year for over two decades now.

In a piece entitled “Indonesia is burning: So why is the world turning away” on the Guardian website by columnist George Monbiot, he discussed “a barbecue on a different scale,” how fire was raging across a 5,000km length of Indonesia recently and the scale of “this inferno”.

One picture accompanying his article is a drone footage captured by Greenpeace field researchers which shows extensive peat and forest fires burning in Indonesia in early October. Some excerpts from his piece: “A great tract of Earth is on fire. The air has turned ocher. Visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30m. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate.”

He said what he did not expect was that the media industry would ignore it. He has often wondered how the media would respond when Eco-apocalypse struck. He pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped.

But there are some things we can do, Monbiot wrote: “Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move more slowly and opaquely: Starbucks, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz are examples. Don’t buy their products until you see results.”

Environmental impact

According to the Energy & Environment section of US-based Vox, a general interest news site, thousands of forest and peat land fires in Indonesia have been raging out of control over the past two months, choking the Southeast Asian region in a thick, toxic haze. On at least 38 days in September and October, the fires were spewing more daily emissions than the entire US economy. Worse still, much of the carbon dioxide emissions being emitted into the atmosphere stay there, not reabsorbed.

Vox noted that normally, carbon dioxide that a wildfire released is reabsorbed when all the vegetation grows back, so the net effect on climate change is fairly nominal. However, that’s not true if:

Promoted
  • the forest area is being permanently cleared for farming, or
  • the fire burns through peat, which contains a vast store of carbon and methane that have built up over many, many years. In such cases, the net effect will be to exacerbate global warming.

The Washington DC-based World Resources Institute using NASA Active Fire Data recently released a report showing there was a total of 7,301 fire alerts in Indonesia from this October of which 1,659 were high-confidence fires. The data also shows 46% of these fire alerts were confined to pulpwood plantations, 43% were outside concessions (wildfires or fires caused by for example smallholder fires), 5% of all fires were within logging concessions and 6% within oil palm concessions.

Meanwhile, it’s not all doom and gloom. Stakeholders in this part of the world are fully aware that more needs to be achieved, than merely firefighting literally and figuratively, for Earth’s greater good and our generations to come.

As a Malaysian agricultural engineer has aptly reminded, with the world population expected to reach 9.1 billion in year 2050, the demand for food products is also expected to increase to 70% more than the current production. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that all agricultural activities be conducted using highly sustainable and clean methods, to ensure our environment and water resources are protected to support the future world population.

He said big oil palm plantation companies owning at least a few thousand acres each have their standard operating procedures in addition with complying with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) principles and criteria relating to good agricultural production practices and waste management such as zero burning at the plantations and methane capture at the palm oil mills.

He suggested that smallholders be encouraged, like given incentives, to implement the RSPO principles and criteria in full, so that oil palm plantation activities can be carried out on a long term sustainability basis.

An area of concern, he said, is open burning by the less educated segment of the industry which largely contributes to the annual haze in this region. But he noted the blame game will not help the situation; adequate education and exposure on the ground provided to the non-complying stakeholders will help greatly.

Overall, the agricultural engineer shared that the Malaysian palm oil industry from the point of land clearing up to the delivery of final products has gone through great improvements thanks to adopting sustainable methods.

Offers Of Help In Tackling Haze

Recently, United Plantations Bhd vice chairman and chief executive director Datuk Carlson Bek-Nielsen said at The Star Roundtable on Palm Oil 2015 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, that the haze in every aspect is a very negative thing for Southeast Asia because it hits so broadly, affecting us all. He said Indonesia has suffered the most in terms of quality of life and financial costs of some US$15 billion. He believes it will now make concerted efforts to minimise the risk of this recurring as the toll on its people has been the hardest.

On government-to-government basis, Malaysia and Singapore announced they are more than willing to help Indonesia tackle severe smoke haze caused by open burning and forest fires in Indonesia during the dry season as it’s a regional issue that hits everyone yearly. Help includes sending aircraft for cloud seeding and helicopters with large water buckets to douse the fires, and providing anti-fire planning assistance.

Last month, Russia helped fight Indonesian haze with water-bombing planes. In 2014, Singapore offered assistance to Malaysia to help combat land and forest fires when the island state was affected by haze from the peninsula.

Promoted

Meanwhile, in one article on the Clean Malaysia website by Malaysian Eliani Ezani, who is conducting research on airborne pollution for a PhD in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, in the UK, she said this annual man-made situation, caused by uncontrolled biomass burning in Indonesia, has wafted over Malaysia and Singapore for more than 20 years now, and haze in Malaysia has caused increased hospital admissions and economic losses.

She noted Malaysia is not alone in combating the issue as there are nine other ASEAN member states which can help to bear the burden. What Asean can do are:

  • Respect environmental law and policy (the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution will take action against those who breach the agreement and help find ways to control illegal open burning)
  • Set up a standard air quality across Asean (establish a health-based standard for air pollution ratings and learn from the European Union which has set emissions reduction targets and limited the acceptable level of air pollution, and Asean members must monitor such levels)
  • Set up an Asean air pollution and climate change research centre to collate air pollution data across Asean and create international collaborations with institutions, as two heads are better than one

What Malaysia can do, she suggested, are refine the air quality standards, control localized emissions and open burning activities, update the public on local haze information via public health education/promotion and advise them to seek medical advice when appropriate, and prepare haze alert systems and tool kits so the public is prepared during haze situations.

“Whatever the situation, there must be some way to solve this issue. We need to control the source of haze in the country, not defend from its effects. We don’t want to hear the same old story every year, so we are calling for urgent action,” she added.

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Comments

Lc Goh

3 more years when all the forests are gone. No more haze.

Fami Isa

The best way will be to catch and grill all the managing directors of the plantation companies.
Smoking them would be far more satisfactory, if you can stand the long time they will scream before they die.

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