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Covered in haze

Is S’pore helpless about the haze? Not really

Are you wondering why companies have gone unpunished despite the yearly forest fires and why Singapore seems to be helpless when it comes to it?

Well, one would definitely be puzzled by the above questions given the myths that surround the annual haze faced by Singapore, such as the cause of the haze and Singapore's inability to take action on foreign land.

The root cause of the haze, not trees but peat

Recently, the mainstream media, at the height of the worsening situation, reiterated the common narrative that Southeast Asia has for years suffered from annual bouts of haze caused by slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia's islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

In fact many people would also probably hold the idea that this is the root cause of the haze, that rampant burning of forest and clearing of land by plantation company created the annual problem for the region.

However one has to bear in mind that for centuries, villagers around the region have been practising slash and burn cultivation, while the haze issue only started in recent decades, particularly since the 1990s.

So what is the root cause of the haze if not the "uneducated" and "inconsiderate" villagers burning of the forests?

Last year, TOC - together with non-governmental organisation, PM Haze - travelled to Riau, Indonesia, to visit the plantations and the government officials to find out the root cause of the smog, and from there, to consider if there could be any viable solutions to the problem.

The first thing that everyone has to understand is that the main culprit of the haze is not the burning of trees or shrubs but peat soil/land. Mere wood and vegetation would not have caused such volumes of smoke over such a long period of time even if it is the whole forest being burned to the ground.

The land that Indonesia has leased out to plantation owners are largely peatland, which are swamp full of decomposing organic material which would eventually turn into fossil fuel in another million odd years.

So how much smoke does peat land produce? From the video above, you can see just how much smoke burning a bit of peat produce, what more a whole forest.

In the second video above, we can see canals are dug along the plots of land. For the uninitiated, one would think that the canals are meant for irrigation. But in reality, the canals are dug to drain the water from the ground to allow crop to be grown on the land. Cash crops such as oil palm and the paper pulp trees can be grown on the peatland, but the water logged soil has to be drained of its water first.

When the land is finally dried, it just takes a dry season and some source of ignitation, whether it is a cigarette or a glowing ember from a nearby controlled clearing by the villagers, to cause a forest fire that is beyond anyone's control.

And when the fire starts, it is not just the top layer that is burned but also the land below, to about a depth of 3-5 metres. As seen in the video below, the peatland below the surface is utterly burned to ashes.

Companies which claim they do not practice slash-and-burn cultivation are telling half-truths because as long as  they drain the peatland of water and leave it unattended, it is just a matter of time and circumstances that the land will catch fire. After the fire have ceased, they can claim ignorance and go ahead with the cultivation.

Not to mention that canals are often dug deeper than the allowed depth by the Indonesian government which precipitates the effect.

Bustar Maitar, Greenpeace International’s head for the Indonesia Forest's campaign against the forest fires, said, “Year after year, Indonesia’s forest fires and haze wreak havoc on the region, and the palm oil sector is a main culprit."

He added, “While RSPO members might have no-fire policies, the peat land they have cleared and drained is like a tinderbox – one spark is all it takes."

What can be done is to dam up the canals and allow the peatland to be "wet" again so when someone or a company conducts slash-and-burn, the unattended land would not be burned as well.

Of course, in order for that to happen, companies need to be pressured to take action to dam up land that the companies have said that they would not be using, instead of paying lip service of doing so and waiting for the eventuality.

Gov't to Gov't is not the way forward, but Gov't/NGO to NGO

Although there are many procedures set in place to protect the peatland, the sheer scale of operations at the plantations and the lack of readily available transportation into the plantation makes it hard to regulate and fight the fire. As seen in the video of the canals, the difficulty of accessing the land makes it difficult for authorities to document any violation by the companies.

Investigations and the number of companies charged for related offences are few and far between.

The lack of enforcement is troubling, said Riko Kurniawan, the executive director of WALHI Riau.  In 2013, the NGO found 117 companies with hotspots on their land, eight were suspected to be fire starters, with only one being prosecuted. In 2014, 889 companies were found with hotspots on their land, with 45 suspected of setting fire to their land, but only one was being brought to court.

Before anyone can say that Singapore has no hold over the companies or individuals as they are based overseas, one could consider where these companies and individuals park their money.

Furthermore, it has just been reported that a Singapore-listed firm is under investigation for causing forest fires in Indonesia, an Indonesian environment ministry official said.

To say that the problems are way beyond Singapore's means of control is to deny all responsibility and to hoodwink the citizens into thinking that the problem can only be solved between the governments of the two countries.

For one, the Jakarta government is probably a few hundred kilometres away from the site while Singapore is merely a stone's throw away from the Riau Islands.

It is likely that Singapore had previously offered financial help as well to aid the Indonesia government in mobilising its manpower and resources to fight the fires and the haze. If this were true, it is likely that little of that money would probably be used at Riau itself.

Zenata Putera, co-founder of local NGO, P.M Haze, said that while Indonesian authorities have said that there is a lack of information regarding the plots of land which companies own, NGOs have noted that such information is in fact available. He also said that it would be easier to work with the NGOs to resolve the haze-related issues than to go through the bureaucratic process.

What the Singapore government could probably do is to engage with the NGOs in Indonesia and to work out a plan to monitor errant companies. It could also help provide jobs for villagers who would be willing to work as firefighters and watchmen of the plantations to prevent fires or to testify against companies who run foul of the law.

The Singapore government has a duty to address the annual issue and to stop pushing the blame to "uneducated" villagers and companies that are almost never prosecuted in any way. The residents of Singapore deserves a better answer than being urged to bear with it and told that things are beyond our control.

To learn more, read TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series in 2014