Drought can be partly blamed for south-east Asia’s forests, but timber and palm oil producers must face up to their role

Ash-laden skies are not an uncommon sight in maritime south-east Asia. But they are at this time of year. Fires typically hit the area in the summer dry season – not in late February, as they have done recently in Sumatra and surrounding forest areas.

Lack of rain is a big part of the problem. The region is currently witnessing one of the most severe and prolonged droughts in decades.

A substantial proportion of the fires occur in peat soil, which is highly flammable when dry and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned.

Human intervention plays a major role. Slash-and-burn forest clearance tactics remain common in the region. The finger is generally pointed at small farmers, who lack expensive felling machinery. However, satellite data released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that about half of all fire locations are linked to formal timber, wood pulp or palm oil concessions.

The Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification body representing more than 30 major producers in Malaysia and Indonesia, is quick to defend its record. RSPO rules forbid the use of slash-and-burn.

RSPO spokeswoman Audrey Lee says concession owners know the “very, very obvious commercial benefit” of reducing fire risk: the protection of their assets.

One important development in recent years is the improvement in satellite data. Allied with this are advances in data access. In February, for example, WRI launched its Global Forest Watch tool, an online mapping service that provides daily updates on the location and intensity of forest fires around the world. Suddenly, it’s far harder for the big players to hide.

Such unprecedented levels of data won’t prove a game-changer on their own. Enforcement agencies will need to start acting on it, says WRI spokesman James Anderson. He points enthusiastically to new legislation in Singapore that would see heavy fines meted out to palm oil producers found guilty of slashing and burning. In what Anderson describes as a “significant step”, buyers could be liable too.

The main onus lies with producers, however. RSPO is working to prevent plantations being established on peat soil: a recent rule change forbids certified producers from setting up on “fragile” soils, a category that includes peat. That still leaves major legacy issues, however. In Sumatra alone, 1.4m hectares of existing RSPO-certified palm plantations are peat-based. 

Local partnerships

Partnerships with smallholders are also important. As well as sharing best practices with local farmers, large-scale concession holders should consider leasing felling machinery during dry periods. 

Timber and palm oil corporations should move to improve the accuracy of concession boundary data too. As present, public datasets rely on information from government sources, which is “not 100% right”, according to Fred Stolle, a forestry expert at WRI. To date, plantation owners have proved reluctant to share the detailed maps at their disposal.

That will need to change. “We don’t know who starts the fires,” Stolle says. “But we do know that companies are responsible for their concessions.” South-east Asia’s fire crises represent a challenge for all those involved in the region’s timber and palm oil industries – certification or no certification.

drought  fires  Palm Oil  south-east Asia 

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