Clearing the Haze: Solutions at hand

“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

The Online Citizen’s previous articles rehashed how the Indonesian government has enacted regulations to prevent companies from planting on peatland which has peat that is more than 3 metres deep. The government also controls how much land each companies could own.

Apart from these land-control measures, the government made it part of the deal for companies to run plantations, and to ensure that fire prevention measures are taken and any fire which takes place are swiftly dealt with by on-site fire fighters.

In reality, we see that this is hardly the case, with factors like lax enforcement, vast land and limited manpower contributing to the problem. Whatever the government has been trying to prevent is still on-going because of the lack of will to make Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) accountable, and the lack of a consolidated concession map for the land.

The ASEAN Peatland Forests Project (APFP) seeks to demonstrate, implement and scale up the sustainable management and rehabilitation of peatland forests in Southeast Asia. This is done by strengthening institutional capacity and frameworks; reducing the rate of degradation on peatlands in Southeast Asia; demonstrating integrated management and rehabilitation of peatlands at target sites; and engaging the private sector and local communities in sustainable peatland management.

With the joint efforts from APFP and Badan Lingkungan Hidup (BLH), an environmental government agency, a pineapple plantation was used as a model project, with BLH only giving back the land to the villagers to maintain the harvest after the pineapple seeds are planted. However, uneasiness started settling in with the villagers when the intended project was left incomplete.

While Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) volunteers touted the good returns of the pineapple plantation, a drive around the villages shows how saturated the market is – pineapples were peddled at the front of every household. The supply for pineapple exceeds the demand for pineapple and it does not help that there is no pineapple processing plant for canned food or other derivatives of the plant. The villagers can only seek to sell their harvest along the side of the road.

Different solutions for different areas within Riau

In another part of the country, the villagers on another island are addressing the problem of cultivating crops on the waterlogged peatland in a different way. Their solution is to plant sago plants, which is naturally grown on such soil conditions. The villagers say that this is a plant that is far better than the oil palm in ecological terms as it does not need excessive drainage of the soil and also allows other vegetation to grow next to it.

The tall sago plant can be harvested by grounding its trunk into pulp and converting it to flour. The sago flour can be used to produce many other food varieties, such as noodles and crackers.

The commercial potential for sago is limitless, but the issue of financial sustainability is still there. As the plants take 7 to 15 years to mature and the villagers only sell the sago pulp at raw material cost for merchants to further process, the returns are far from profitable.

Compared to the different approaches across Riau to make better use of peatland, Singapore offers Indonesia assistance in combating forest fires. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources offered an assistance package consisting an aircraft for cloud seeding operations, up to two aircrafts to ferry fire-fighting assistance teams from Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), a team from SCDF to provide assessment and planning assistance to their Indonesian counterparts, and high-resolution satellite pictures and hotspot coordinates.

But each time such uncontrolled fires happens, it is only a painful reminder of the unsolved problem in Indonesia that affects its neighbouring countries. Over the years, Indonesia has fought for more enforcement and laws governing land concessions. Indonesia has also launched major campaigns by Greenpeace and signed a first-ever Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with London to combat illegal logging, in an attempt to provide a solution to the  imminent problem.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was also formed, albeit surrounded by controversy, and whose clashes with the police has brought about mass gatherings and vocal rallies by the people, as seen in the sensitive scenario of gecko versus crocodile.

Indonesia has also established a national Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) agency and additionally imposed regulations to protect the remaining forests.

It has been decades since the haze shook ASEAN nations to action in 1997, and the solutions suggested thus far have been addressed and implemented extensively, but only to fall short soon after, or show very little positive long-term results.

Some of the Masyarakat Penduli Api (MPA) members, who are the community’s fire fighting team, often have disagreements with government agencies due to breakdown in communication and the government’s failure “to utilise water pumping machines” or do proper and adequate field work when asked by them. This does not stop the members from building canals and maintaining the harvest and condition of the plantations.

There are a number of programmes implemented by the MPA – for instance, activities to prepare villagers for the next wildfire. A number of other organisations also support them on these activities, such as providing water pumps and helping to construct wells.  However, the MPA’s activities are sorely lacking in sustainability.

“Our work is periodic in nature, and we only spring into action when there is a blaze,” said one community fire-fighter in Mumugo. “If we get enough donations, that is. At least the MPA cannot function self-sufficiently on the level of the ‘kepenghuluan’ because we lack the resources to fight fires on our own. Those are the limitations we face.”

Riko Kurniawan, the executive director of WALHI Riau discussed how permits are too easily given out in Indonesia, resulting in the current problem being more than just knee-deep.

“Let’s talk about the root problem,” Kurniawan said. “It’s the government’s regulation that peatland which is more than three metres deep should not be given permit, but the fact is many areas (already) have the permits. If we want to talk about illegal logging and corruption in the forest industry, this is the problem: It’s too easy to get the permit.”

With companies constantly using land for one-sided beneficial purposes such as draining of peatland to use for commercial farming, making it dry and more susceptible to fire, it is plausible to believe that trans-boundry pollution would only come to an end with the cessation of land concessions for developers to develop the peatland, the root of the haze.

TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series includes:

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