South-east Asia’s forests and peatlands continue to go up in smoke, with serious consequences for regional air quality

Thick, smoke-fuelled haze has become an almost annual blight in south-east Asia, with this year’s wildfires engulfing large chunks of peninsular Malaysia, the entire city state of nearby Singapore, and western parts of sprawling Indonesia.

For days, residents were warned to stay indoors, so great was the health hazard. Pollution indexes shot to record highs, while regional economies suffered catastrophic losses linked to tourism cancellations.

Startling as this was to many, close observers say the most important aspect of this latest conflagration is that in coming years this may become the new normal. Forest fires in Indonesia are part of a long-standing, endemic problem – with the most recent fire crisis not an unusual event in the region’s history since 2000.

The June levels of haze “were the result of unusual wind patterns, not unusually high levels of forest fires”, wrote Nigel Sizer, director of the forests initiative at the World Resources Institute (WRI), in a blog post.

Nearly half of 2013’s fires were in timber and oil palm plantations – a statistic backed by maps from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Nasa satellite data but disputed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in a series of press releases issued against Greenpeace.

Peatland burning

The fires are especially worrisome because of their link to the burning of secondary forest on valuable peatland soils. Fires on this peat, with its rich combustible organic matter stretching deep into the ground, are far more serious from both a human health and an environmental perspective. They release larger amounts of smoke, other pollutants and greenhouse gases than fires elsewhere, and they can burn for weeks or even months. Peatland fires were linked to roughly two-thirds of the 2013 fires, according to WRI.

Some commentators in Indonesia defend their growers by saying the source of the haze was spontaneous peat fires owing to high temperatures, and not deliberate burning of forests. Others say it is common for large firms to expand by paying locals to set fires along the sides of their concessions. Plantation owners deny that they themselves use slash-and-burn techniques, but rely solely on the use of excavators to clear the land.

To Sizer, an expert on Indonesian forests of many years’ experience, the source of the confusion about responsibility for fires highlights to the inadequacy of current maps housed in official Indonesian government databases.

Smog summit

But what can south-east Asian countries do to address these challenges? The governments of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand met in mid-July at a so-called “haze summit” to discuss ways to curb fires in the region.

What emerged was a positive half-step – a recommendation to share company concession data between governments, but without a pledge to make the data freely available to the public.

“This agreement represents a missed opportunity,” according to Sizer, “as publicly available concession data is essential for co-ordination between governments and local agencies, for contract compliance between commodity producers and their corporate customers, and for independent monitoring by researchers and civil society.”

deforestation  Environment  Eric Marx  forestry  pollution 

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