Clearing the Haze: Who is burning the land?

“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.

By Terry Xu and Yasmeen Banu

When it comes to understanding the haze from Indonesia that envelops Singapore every year,. the common belief is that it is caused by farmers who set their land ablaze – recklessly, carelessly and for selfish reasons – with disregard toward their neighbours and the environment.

However, speaking with farmers and local volunteers from NGOs in Indonesia, we understand that most farmers are extremely careful with the method in which they burn their land, and the time in which they choose to burn their land.

burnt land and forest
Controlled burning by local land owner with a clear separation from cleared land and forested area.

Controlled burning to clear land

Controlled burning is one method that is traditionally used, and mostly during wet seasons. With people employed to keep watch on all sides, farmers would proceed to burn land with cleared sides to prevent the fire from spreading. They also place huge logs around their land and dig canals as alternative measures to control the fire.

The primary reason farmers practice controlled burning is to produce better crop yield in the next harvest, as burnt crop residue, vegetative debris and weeds makes the land more fertile for the next crop rotation. Peatland that has been dried and burned is more bountiful for subsequent crops.

While some farmers practice controlled burning to clear the land, some do it for more lush and fertile land, and others for both. Some farmers are independent workers, with no ties to any companies, while others are tied to companies through contractual work agreements. 

Riko Kurniawan, the executive director of WALHI Riau candidly told TOC that to clear the land using the proper way involves expensive heavy machinery, while burning only requires a lighter and two litres of gasoline for each worker.

When questioned about the possible solutions to stop slash and burn practices by locals, the government official in Riau said the best solution is to provide the villagers with alternative ways to clear the land.

Contributors of mismanagement

While it is required for Masyarakat Peduli Api (Organised Fire Care Community Group) members – head of plantations who would guard against fires and take care of plantations and hectares of land – to keep watchful eyes on plantations, weak governance in protecting these lands have resulted in failed attempts to safeguard crops and plantations.

Multi-National Companies (MNCs) like Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd (APRIL) declared that it has a no-burning policy and is also a victim of fast-spreading blazes set by villagers. The multinational firm has about 700 fire fighters and backs the bigger fines imposed by Singapore’s recently passed legislation to penalise offending companies that contribute to any air pollution in the country.

But one company’s stated policy may be different from what happens on the ground.

Do not burn
A local firefighter in Riau standing on a piece of land which was burnt recently. The sign behind put up by an MNC states “Dilarang membakar”, which translates into “Burning is prohibited”.

While travelling through Riau, a common theory is that fires are usually started by cigarette butts carelessly flicked on to peatland. Dry peatland is highly flammable. Once exposed to any form of external heat, it will catch fire and feed the flames, quickly spreading the fire underground.

As much as drained peatland are at a greater risk of starting wild fires especially during dry seasons, it is required under law for 5 MPA members ((head of plantations who would guard against fires and take care of plantations and hectares of land) to keep watchful eyes and be in charge of one hectare of plantation, to avoid unwanted and uncalled for complications but as we traveled across the plantations, that barely seems to be the case.

The theory of cigarette butts has many sides to it, particularly since the Indonesians themselves are generally careful about starting uncontrolled fires and are just as affected by the haze. The man-made canals, dug to dry out the peatlands, also helps in managing irrigation on the plantations and preventing fires from spreading.

However, there is still the issue of inaccurate land allocation and certain companies owning too much land. In such cases, canals that have been dug to dry the peatland, but left unattended, can compound the fire problems, rather than help prevent them. Large areas of forested area were left unattended to. Even the watchtower that is supposed to be erected every 1,000 hectares to keep a lookout for fire in the land is barely able look over the tree horizon due to its height.

Kurniawan said that out of the 4.2 million hectares of peatland, two major companies, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and APRIL own 2.1 million hectares of it, and are not using all of it. However, by digging canals around the land that they do own and not monitoring it, they are ultimately causing unintentional fires to happen, especially during the dry seasons.

large canal
Large canal of 7-8 metres dug to drain water from the peatland by plantation company.

Adi, an NGO member explained that fires on dried peatland can be set off by flying embers from nearby fires. Kurniawan also believes that the lack of manpower to monitor plantations on the ground itself is not helping the situation.

At Sungai Tohor in Riau, villagers were visibly upset with the companies that set up their offices in the area, saying that the arrival of these companies started the series of fires in Sungai Tohor. One of the companies, Nasional Sago Prima (NSP) was blamed by villagers for the excessive drainage of water through the large canals built, hugely contributing to extremely dry peat, and hence, flammable land. The only redeemable factor, the villagers said, is NSP building dams, hence being able to  retain the water, once they realise the canals are draining more water than they are supposed to.

Deliberate, uncontrolled burning?

Troubling issues such as inexact land allocations, carelessness and lack of strong governance all add to the haze situation. However, deliberate burning by companies for insurance monies is not unheard of in Indonesia.

Companies would pay land owners, migrant workers and local farmers to intentionally set lands ablaze to attain insurance money, each worker earning 800,000 to 1.5mil Rupiah to burn. Insurance companies, usually based in Singapore or Malaysia, would find it hard to follow-up and check on the actual cause of the fires.

That said, the number of times plantations are burned for insurance money does not happen often enough to be a disturbing trend. MNC’s should not be viewed as evil corporates that burns vegetation and destroy land at any opportunity. Companies also suffer losses if forest fires burn out of control and destroy their cash crops as well.

Pinpointing the main culprits of the fires is not an easy task due to many factors, such as difficulty in accessing the land, lack of enforcement, and resources for fire fighting. Kurniawan insists that protection for peatland must constantly be present.

“As long as the land is not protected, the haze will always be there,” he said. “And this is the main problem. It doesn’t matter if we have helicopters for seeding or anything like that, men need to have access to the forest. Not just be at their office doing inaccurate paperwork, but be on ground, in the forest.”

TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series includes:

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