Clearing the Haze: From the peatlands where it begins

“Clearing the Haze” is a feature series by The Online Citizen that brings you into the core of the trans-boundary haze issue. Our reporting team joined volunteers from local haze monitoring group, PM. Haze, on one of their field trips into the heart of Indonesia earlier this year to find out more about the haze situation, what causes the fires, and what can be done about it.

On 21 June 2013, Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) level hit a hazardous high of 401, triggering a nationwide call to stay indoors and to wear N95 masks. Although the haze has been a yearly bother for Singapore and neighbouring countries, the haze issue itself isn’t a surface problem.

Fires from peatland, which is the major source of haze, has caused unfavourable consequences to the environment, to livelihood, to the economy, and to health. The main bulk of the pollutant that contributes to the haze situation comes from the burning of  the carbon-rich peatland rather than the vegetation.

Peatland as commercially arable land – human intervention

Canals run across peatlands in Indonesia to drain water.
Canals run across peatlands in Indonesia to drain water.

Naturally a country with dense forested areas, about 22 million hectares of Indonesia constitutes peatland. Peat covers the forest bed, and is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and organic matter. As it accumulates, peat holds water, therefore slowly creating wetter conditions, allowing the area of wetland to expand.

Wetland would naturally not burn when set on fire, but the peatland is being drained of its water content via canals dug by either the government or companies seeking to cultivate the land.

If one were to travel from village to village, in areas where there are hectares of plantations and crops such as palm oil trees that provide for domestic use and international commodities, a sight most familiar would be that of canals.

An artificial waterway built to irrigate water from plantations, the canals are essentially a way to keep the plantations sufficiently dry. The natural wetland is so wet that most of the commercially viable crops do not grow on them. Peatland in its natural form is not suitable as arable land to hold and maintain harvest. It is the use of canals and irrigation techniques, a human intervention, that makes this possible.

When the peatland is dry, it catches fire easily during slash and burn activities and would rapidly spread underground. Wikipedia describes peat fires as “smoldering fires (that) can burn undetected for very long periods of time (months, years, and even centuries) propagating in a creeping fashion through the underground peat layer.” Evidently, peat fires are both devastating and difficult to control.

Burn marks on a tree indicating where the soil level was before a peat fire.
Burn marks on a tree indicating where the soil level was before a peat fire.

Indeed, locating the spot where the fire started is a task that Indonesians have struggled with, as it is rather difficult to pinpoint the exact spot the fire begun. The usual measure would be to stick a hose into the peat to douse the fire. When the fire spreads however, they simply do not have the equipment to combat it. Such uncontrolled burning causes much of the haze that we see drifting towards Indonesia neighbours, including Singapore.

Hence, we need to understand that peatland on its own does not cause fires or the haze it produces. As a source of agricultural sustenance, peatlands in their natural state can only support low population densities. The plantations we have in Indonesia today are a deliberate attempt to drain the land for commercial farming use. The use of canals that cut across plantations necessarily indicate that such efforts are headed by the Indonesian government and large companies.

However, much as we think that we have a problem with the haze, one of the victims of converting peatland to farming land are the Indonesians themselves. Not even considering that the haze situation, and the corresponding PSI level, would be much worse at ground zero, the burning of peatland causes environmental degradation that impoverishes the land quality.

Forest fires do not just mean the destruction of natural vegetation but the gradual lowering of the land’s level. Every time a forest fire spreads onto peatland, the peat gets burnt and the land subsides.

What many people worry is that the land will eventually be lowered to a point where it is lower than the sea level, hence slowly resulting in the loss of land for the people.

Peatland, it seems, is a means to an end and not an end itself

In the 1990s, Indonesia saw the conversion of many of its forestlands being owned by plantation firms and land-clearance contractors, who through concessions, would burn land to provide for palm oil, timber, pulp and paper.

Demands need to be met as rising domestic and international needs for these commodities increased. With this practices going on for years, and compounded by weather patterns caused by El Nino, Indonesia witnessed its worse episode of haze in 1997 that engulfed the entire region. There is reason to believe that the underground fires since 1997 have continued to burn today, pouring more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Peatland which are more than three metres deep are protected by regulations that demand it cannot be farmed on. However, many villagers and companies ignore this regulation due to the lack of will and the difficulty in enforcement by government authorities.

WALHI (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup), a non-government organization who does checks on environmental and forestry issues among other matters, maintains that while not all farmers and companies do not practice good corporate social responsibility (CSR), it is reasonable to believe that there are many companies who act solely on greed, exploiting the land resources for about 30 years and subsequently simply moving on to another plot of land or another country.

TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series includes:


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