The haze at Ground Zero – busting the myths

By Tan Yi Han

Last year in June, I visited a village called Harapan Jaya, where fire broke out and burned down newly planted rubber trees. I estimate the area burnt to be about two hectares, or about four football fields.

The village is governed by strong laws, which state that if fire burns a neighbouring farmland, the farmer who started the fire has to pay compensation to his neighbour. Thus, farmers in this village are very careful with fire.

The fact that fire still broke out and burnt newly planted trees was thus attributed by the village head to accidental causes. There was plenty of dry vegetation in that area, and a cigarette butt thrown into the dry vegetation could easily start a fire.

During the dry season, the dry peatland would have been susceptible to fire, allowing the fire to go underground and burn with even more ferocity.

In my opinion, one of the misinterpretations is that all fires are deliberately set, so we end up going on a hunt for the culprits. In comparison, Singapore also has many wildfires during the drought period in March, but no one attributed it to land clearing.

We cannot discount that some fires in Indonesia happened by accident. Rather than ask why the fire started, perhaps we should be asking why the fire could spread over hundreds of hectares.

Indeed, if we put in more effort to examine why fires start, spread and stop, it will be increasingly clear to us that human actions have a part to play in each step.

We lack understanding of farming methods and the behaviour of fire. I’ve seen farmers burn agricultural waste without causing a runaway fire. Smoke is produced, but certainly not the kind that will reach Singapore.

In one instance, the farmer was burning on peatland. The farmer had gathered the agricultural waste, such as rice stalks, to the middle of the field, so the fire could be controlled. The risk of fire was also low due to the wet weather conditions. This suggests that use of fire in farming need not be completely eliminated.

There is also a need to refocus attention away from how the haze affects the health of the farming community, back to how it impacts them economically. Many farmers do, in fact, lose out financially from the fires, which debunks the commonly-held belief that there is a profit motive in burning.

The locals suffer immensely whenever the haze hits, as can be seen by the PSI levels there and the number of people who suffered from respiratory tract infection. But unlike in Singapore, when the haze is gone, the suffering continues for some locals.

Last year in June, I visited the site of a massive fire that raged over hundreds of hectares. A farmer and his wife had been growing oil palm and waiting for the harvest to provide for their children’s education. In just a week, the fire had wiped out their entire plantation. They even had to ask for food aid from us.

Even if they manage to plant new oil palm plants, it would take years before it is ready for harvest. They could plant pineapple in the meantime, but the price it fetches is terribly low.

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For many of these farmers, the problems of the haze goes beyond health. It also affects their livelihood. There is a big question mark on how they will cope in the next few years.

As such, if we only choose to see the fires that bring the haze to Singapore each year as the deliberate acts of irresponsible farmers, who have indiscriminately allowed fire to wreak havoc on their plantation for reasons of profitability, we are only looking at half the picture. A lot more needs to be considered if we even hope to contain the haze.

People in Singapore may feel that locals in Indonesia are not doing anything to stop the fires. Fortunately, this is far from the truth.

Since last year, I have been working with Mitra Insani, an NGO based in Riau. They are working actively with a few villages to help improve their welfare on a holistic basis.For example, Mitra Insani helps villages set up a community fire-fighting team. The government is able to help provide some training and basic equipment, but they are not given any funding.

For volunteers in the community fire-fighting team, fighting fire means weeks or even months being away from their work and represents a significant loss of income. Having a fire-fighting team on paper will not work if there is no funding. Mitra Insani therefore helps the villages set up communal income-generating activities that channel the profit into a fund for the fire-fighting team. When there is fire, this fund will be used to pay for equipment, compensate the volunteers as well as buy gasoline for the water pumps.

Examples of the communal income-generating activities would be cow rearing and communal pineapple farm. In the trip that we will be making in June, we will be visiting two villages which works with Mitra Insani in such a manner.

The author is a volunteer with ECO Singapore. He has visited the source of the annual haze that envelops Singapore every year, in order to better understand what actually happens on the ground in Indonesia.

A volunteer team from Singapore, P.M Singapore will be visting Riau, Indonesia from 20th to 26th June to understand more about the situation on ground zero and to identify possible solutions for the issue of haze. Visit the volunteer team at their fanpage for updates on the findings from the trip.