in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore

Singapore chokes on haze from Sumatra fires. Again. Wasn’t REDD supposed to stop this?

Last week, the pollution from fires in Sumatra set new records. The smoke in Singapore this year is worse than it was in 1997 and 2002, both years of major forest burning in Indonesia.

World Resources Institute has produced an analysis of where the fires are, based on NASA’s Active Fire Data and the Ministry of Forestry’s concession maps. WRI found that most of the fires are in Riau province, and almost half are inside concessions for oil palm plantations or industrial tree plantations. According to the data, the largest number of fires are within concessions belonging to the Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas (RGM) groups.

Indonesia’s coordinating minister for people’s welfare, Agung Laksono, is the minister responsible for coordinating Indonesia’s response. He seems to have failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem.

“Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise,” he said at a press conference on Thursday.

He also seems to have missed the point that these fires are started deliberately. “This is not what the Indonesian nation wants,” Laksono said, “it is because of nature.”

He added that Indonesia wasn’t looking for small amounts of money to help address the fires. “If it is only half a million, or one million dollars, we don’t need that. We would rather use our own national budget,” he said.

Laksono also seems not to have heard about the US$1 billion REDD deal signed in 2010 between Indonesia and Norway. Except that, of course, the moratorium, which was recently extended for another two years, doesn’t apply to existing concessions.

In 2011, Hadi Daryanto, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry general secretary, commented that the “Moratorium does not affect investment.” He said this just after the ministry had handed out more than 370,000 hectares of concessions in a six month period.

“We have considered creating artificial rain to put out the fires, but that would take two weeks,” he said, as reported by the Jakarta Post. “So we’ve decided to leave it in the hands of nature. And let’s just pray for that.” And if praying doesn’t work? “If there is no downpour then the haze could last for weeks, or even months, as we try to generate artificial rain.”

Daryanto also pointed out that Singaporean and Malaysian companies were involved in the palm oil industry in Sumatra:

“The slash-and-burn technique being used is the cheapest land-clearing method and it is not only used by local farmers, but also employees of palm oil investors including Singaporean and Malaysian companies…. We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together.”

Associated Press reports that Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised yesterday to Singapore and Malaysia for the pollution. “For what is happening, as the president, I apologize to our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia,” Yudhoyono said. “There should be a thorough investigation. In my analysis, there are both natural and human factors.”

Many of the fires in NASA’s satellite images are in concessions run by companies that supply Asia Pulp and Paper, part of the Sinar Mas Group. APP sent a statement to, in which it states that only seven of the 74 hotspots in its suppliers’ concessions are actually forest fires. APP “remains 100 percent committed to its zero deforestation policy”, the company stated.

In 2001, Indonesia passed a law (Government Regulation 4/2001) that forbids all forest and land fires. In a 2003 report, titled “Fires in Indonesia”, Luca Tacconi of CIFOR commented that, “It is obvious that just revising the legislation will not solve fire related problems. The laws need to be enforced and this is not occurring.”

Tacconi also recommended different strategies for dealing with breaches of the law by companies and by farmers:

  • Companies: “to effect a change in the use of fires by companies, clear punitive examples need to be set, meaning that companies using fire unlawfully need to be prosecuted, if found guilty the penalties imposed need to be sufficiently large to act as a deterrent.”
  • Farmers: “when livelihood activities are involved in a fire or smoke haze problem, only community-based initiatives, backed by legislative means, have any likelihood of succeeding.”

Yesterday, Indonesian police arrested two farmers for illegally starting fires in Sumatra. A spokesperson for the police said that,

“We arrested two farmers in Riau who were clearing their land by burning. They were not working for anyone but just clearing their own land.”


PHOTO Credit: Smoke Engulfs Singapore, NASA.

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