Singapore-funded efforts to fight haze face challenges on ground

Zubaidah Nazeer Indonesia Correspondent In Jambi (Sumatra)
Straits Times 1 Jul 13;

TWO towers that monitor the air and weather stand as reminders of the commitment made by Singapore to help Indonesia curb the forest fires that cause the haze.

But the equipment, in Jambi and nearby Muaro Jambi regency, is no longer in use, The Straits Times learnt during a visit to the area last week.

Officials here said they stopped operating the two monitoring stations after the tape used to record data ran out some time last year and was not replenished. Singapore's Government donated the equipment to Indonesia in 2009.

The comments by Mr Asrofi, an official with Jambi's Environment Ministry, spoke volumes about the challenges faced by foreign-funded projects aimed at helping to curb the haze.

He said: "The station ran out of material for recording, which is very expensive to replace. Even if we did (have the recording material), we don't want to touch it because we fear we could damage the sensitive equipment."

What then of other projects that were identified for Jambi?

Singapore's efforts to encourage farmers in Jambi to turn to fisheries - so that they would be less likely to resort to burning to clear land for cultivation - do not appear to have worked.

There had been great hopes for an "aqua-culture" project, one of many environmental programmes initiated in Jambi under a two- year, $1 million collaboration that Singapore and Indonesia signed in late 2007.

But The Straits Times was unable to find any new fish farms in Jambi that were associated with the programme.

"There was much interest in this," said a spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) in an e-mailed response.

"But the aqua-culture project did not manage to take off due to lack of infrastructural support for the export of the produce."

Despite such glitches, data obtained from the Forestry and Environment Ministry in Jambi shows that the province has reduced the number of hot spots here by about 70 per cent since 2006.

Activists and experts attribute the significant drop to several factors. Chief among these is that residents in Jambi now have a greater awareness of the detrimental effects that slash-and-burn methods bring to them and their surroundings.

Indeed, in Muaro Jambi alone, the number of hot spots shrank to less than 10 per cent of what was recorded in 2006 - from 1,909 hot spots in 2006 to 189 in 2011.

This made it a model in Indonesia's battle against haze, say green campaigners. The regency - one of nine in Jambi - had been the main source of much of the burnings and the resulting haze in Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of the region.

In its official collaboration with Jambi, Singapore also focused on efforts to teach farmers zero-burning practices, and train local officials to interpret satellite pictures so that they could monitor hot spots.

In 2008, Singapore Delft Water Alliance, Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) and Jambi University also joined hands to organise two technical workshops and seminars to train local farmers about how to better manage the peatlands.

About 40 per cent of Jambi sits on peatland, one of the most fertile soils but also the most vulnerable to burning during scorching weather as the water in it evaporates.

Mr Husni Thamrin, founder of a forest conservation NGO called Pinang Sebatang, said: "Some of these residents have formed their own small communities to be on fire alert. There is certainly more awareness across villages there."

But the activist, whose non- governmental organisation has also formed a team of volunteers who help in fire alerts across villages in Muaro Jambi, suggests that Singapore should conduct follow-ups to its programmes.

"I have not heard of more programmes since the initial phase," he said. "If this is aimed at changing mindsets, such efforts cannot stop at just workshops or short programmes. There has to be a sustained commitment of several years for there to be meaningful impact."

Asked about this, the MEWR spokesman said the ministry was awaiting approval from the Indonesian government for the next phase of its collaborative project with Jambi.

The spokesman gave no details about potential new projects, but characterised the joint efforts to date as "successful".

With the region's environment ministers expected to meet in Kuala Lumpur on July 17 to discuss the haze situation, expectations are high.

Forest campaigner Rudi Syaf, founder of a respected forest conservation group in Jambi called Warsi, said such efforts were commendable. But he also said that any future environmental collaboration with Singapore or other countries should incorporate "a better understanding of how things actually work here".

"A masterplan from the (Singapore-Jambi) programme has remained largely a reference and not implemented," he explained.

"In Indonesia, expecting a change in laws or habits takes years as the system may not be as efficient as in Singapore."