Indonesia burns again

8 July 2013

A couple of recent articles from Tessa Toumbourou at (Where there’s smoke there’s ire: investigating Indo’s forest haze) and The Economist (Why is South-East Asia’s annual haze so hard to deal with?) have highlighted the cause of the haze that has blanketed Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in recent weeks. The Pollution Standards Index in Singapore rose to an all-time high prompting authorities to advise people to “avoid unnecessary outdoor activity.”

According to “Half the fire alerts in Indonesia’s Riau province, the epicentre of the fire zone, have been found to be on timber and palm oil plantations, according to recent analysis by the World Resources Institute. Fires within the concession areas of the companies Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas were reported to account for over 50% of the fire alerts across all land within these concession areas. Indonesian authorities have fingered these two companies.”

The Economist: “At least three laws in Indonesia prohibit the burning and clearing of forests. But these have never been seriously enforced by the government. Hardly anyone has been successfully prosecuted over the years for lighting fires. And as Singaporeans and Malaysians have taken pains to point out, Indonesia was the only member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations not to have ratified a 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.” “In the absence of responsible actors, international NGOs Avaaz and the Environmental Investigation Agency have called on the Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that certifies sustainable palm-oil plantation practices, to intervene. Half of the fires in concession areas are on the land of companies that have been certified as sustainable palm oil producers with the RSPO, including Sinar Mas, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, Tabung Haji Plantations, Kuala Lumpur Kepong, and Sime Darby.

“The RSPO has stated that it will ask these companies to submit digital maps of their plantations, which will be analysed to confirm the fire locations. Once the fires are located the task is to identify the causes — whether due to negligent conduct or otherwise.”

In summarising The Economist states: “It is hard to see how the situation will improve. Corruption does not help: this year’s disaster was preceded by the arrest of Rusli Zainal, the governor of Riau since 2003. He was charged with giving out illegal logging permits to finance his re-election campaign. Conflicting maps and the confusing ownership structures of the palm-oil conglomerates also make it hard to enforce rules regarding farming and forestry. And underlying all of this is the fact that much of the area now burning in Riau is peat wetland, the result of years of deforestation. Peat can go down to a depth of 30m in Sumatra and is highly combustible, with fires smouldering underground long after a fire has been extinguished on the surface. So the fires continue to linger invisibly, as do the dark commercial and political motives that also sustain them.”

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