Indonesia’s haze weapons: Maps and sensors

KOI KYE LEE Today Online 2 Dec 16;

SINGAPORE — Indonesia will develop high-resolution maps to monitor areas prone to peatland fires and require concessions owned by plantation companies to install water-level sensors, as part of the latest efforts to tackle the annual transboundary haze.

Mr Nazir Foead, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, said 2.4 million hectares of peatland will be targeted for restoration in the next five years. Already, 606,000 hectares have been mapped and another one million hectares will be mapped next year, he said.

Such a map has to be very detailed and taking aerial photographs is more laborious than using satellite imagery, said Mr Nazir in a recent interview with TODAY. It also includes time-consuming fieldwork.

“The team on the ground needs to do manual drilling on the ground to measure the depth of the peatland,” he said. “This is one of the challenges we face in creating a consolidated high-resolution map.”

The agency was set up earlier this year by a presidential decree, as part of efforts by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to curb forest fires that create a choking haze around the region, sickening people and closing schools.

The fires are caused by slash-and-burn land-clearing by plantation companies, made worse some years by dry weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon.

Last year, the smoke blanketed Singapore and Malaysia for weeks from September to November and drifted as far north as the Thai capital, Bangkok.

The Indonesian government said fires last year resulted in at least US$16 billion (S$23 billion) in economic losses. Often the fires are put out only when the rainy season arrives each year.

The haze in South-east Asia this year, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, has been less severe.

The Indonesian government said this was due to favourable weather conditions and quicker emergency response by their National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Earlier this week, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla blamed foreign countries for destroying Indonesia’s forests, adding that he wants them to pay to help restore the damaged land.

“What happens here is not only our problem. The foreign people also destroyed our forests,” said Mr Kalla on Wednesday. He once again said Singapore and Malaysia should not complain about transboundary haze.

“If you get fresh air from Sumatra, Kalimantan, you don’t say thank you. So, if you get the haze, why should I apologise?”

To map the next million hectares of peatland, Mr Nazir said a technical team of experts — made up of Indonesian officials and academics from Australia, Europe and Japan — are trying to develop a cheaper methodology.

“We found the perfect methodology for the first map, however that is time consuming and costly,” he said.

Asked if the map will be shared with other countries, Mr Nazir said it would be shared via the government’s website in JPEG format. However, more detailed data will not be accessible by the public or other countries due to security concerns.

The mapping will include burnt and degraded peatland in the provinces of Riau, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua, an important step towards restoration. Of 2.6 million hectares that were burnt last year in Indonesia, nearly one million was peatland — carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained.

Mr Nazir stressed the importance of water management in peatland. He said that plantation companies have built canals to drain peatland in order to grow oil palms and other trees for timber, leaving dry peat that burns easily.

“So, what we are trying to do now is to encourage the companies to keep their land moist throughout the wet season, as part of the water-management system for peatland,” said Mr Nazir.

Companies will be asked to close their canals during the wet season to allow the peatland to collect rainwater, he said. A majority of the companies have been receptive to the idea, even though some were worried that their palm-oil plantations would be flooded and the trees may die.

Mr Nazir said sensors would also be installed in the peatland, including those owned by concessions, and his agency would be able to monitor the water level of the land.

Should the water level fall below the dangerous level, the agency would remind the owners to keep their land moist to prevent forest fires.

Mr Nazir said that Mr Widodo’s administration has made it a priority to fight peat fires. Owners who flout the new water-management rules risk losing their land.

“The government will not cancel the licences (of the concessions) yet, but it will take over the land and ensure the management complies with the restoration rules. They will be given three years to do so. If they fail, then it (the licence) will be cancelled,” he said.

The Indonesian government has found more than 55 companies involved in illegal land-clearing activities since last year’s fires.

A US$565 million lawsuit brought by the government against a pulp and paper company was rejected by a court last month, dealing a blow to government efforts to punish those who set the fires to clear land.

Mr Nazir said concessions were aware of the negative implications of slash-and-burn practices, and many have turned to mechanical land clearance methods.

“There are still companies that practise that (slash-and-burn) knowing the negative implications it causes, but it is a cheaper method to clear their lands. Sometimes, they will pay local villagers or professional arsonists to burn the land. This is what the law-enforcement agencies are trying to stop,” he added.

There are signs that efforts may be paying off. This year, 16 per cent of fires occurred in peatland areas, compared with 35 per cent last year.

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