Haze during wet months

Haze across Riau, Sumatra, from the forest fires. Photo by Aulia Erlangga for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Haze across Riau, Sumatra, from the forest fires. Photo by Aulia Erlangga for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

This article was originally published in Indonesian, on Kompas.com.

The provinces of Riau and Jambi on the east coast of Sumatra were blanketed in thick haze in late March and early April as a result of fires set to clear land for oil palm and industrial timber estate development and other needs.  Strangely, compared to when the same thing happened in Singapore, the international media was relatively quiet saying little about the suffering of people in cities like Pekanbaru and Jambi.

Haze is a transboundary problem, which means its socio-economic impacts can spread depending on where the wind blows.  However, there would be no smoke without fire and it would be erroneous to think that fires are a local problem.  With the current global trade and investment system the causes of fires can also be transboundary.

There are two interesting phenomena to pay close attention to while seeking solutions in this year of political upheaval, which is stealing so much attention from the stakeholders who should have the authority to handle this annual problem: increasingly complex political-economic phenomena and physical phenomena relating to the geographical position of Sumatra.

Political-economic phenomena

The term political-economy can be defined as political decisions in the form of policies to achieve short-term economic objectives (growth).  On the other side of the coin is the term political ecology, which conservatively prioritises long-term ecological preservation over economic objectives.

The actors behind these phenomena are clear; central and regional policy makers and market players, particularly investors who already have trade scenarios in their broad networks in marketing their products.

Palm oil, pulp and paper are leading products that generate foreign exchange, which is important for state revenue.  The state provides amenities to the business community including land control and conversion permits as the main factors for production.  Moreover, the state receives taxes and other revenue to use as capital for further development and monitoring the implementation of policies it has made.

If monitoring capacity is weak, then state revenue could be used to build that capacity.  If fires occur over and over again and people say that capacity is not there while the state receives hundreds of trillions of rupiah from tax, then something is clearly amiss; corruption.  This is where the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) really must become involved.

In terms of identifying where incidents take place we already have the technology to determine location and landowners accurately.  Such means could be used as evidence while at the same to breaking the chain of cat and mouse being played out between big businesses, communities, and central and regional governments that never cease blaming each other.

Political-economic phenomena are closely linked to forest and land management systems and their regulatory frameworks.  If the licensing and boundaries of locations are clear, and violations occur then law enforcement will also have a clear course.  Therefore, the state should be responsible for taking action.  If the state does not act, the impression will arise that it is letting it happen, while acting too slowly and giving rise to material and non-material casualties will indicate low levels of state capability and accountability.

Physical phenomena

Smoke haze is a seasonal occurrence.  With all the associated risks people usually start fires in the dry season so burning off will be quicker.  In Riau, the dry season usually arrives in April or May, but recently there appears to have been a climate anomaly.  February and March, normally wet months, were in fact dry and enabled people to set fire to scrub (not always forest) growing on relatively wet peat land. Consequently, fires did not flare up but smouldered as damp and oxygen starved fuel led to large volumes of smoke.

Unfortunately Buys Ballot’s law applies here. At the time monsoon winds in the northern hemisphere were still blowing from the north east (in Asia where air pressure is high) and turning to the south east in the southern hemisphere (towards Australia where air pressure is low) when they passed the equator, which crosses Riau province several kilometres south of the provincial capital, Pekanbaru. Consequently, Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia were untouched by the haze from Sumatra.

The situation will be very different if the opposite occurs. The wind will change direction in around three or four months time, and the international media will have a field day reporting on the suffering of Singaporeans and targeting the Government of Indonesia.  Accusations will be increasingly cutting and a war of nerves with the neighbouring country will be repeated again.

Though natural phenomena like overlong dry seasons, droughts and El Ninos are not the cause, we should be wary of them.  These phenomena are predictable and should be made an early warning system rather than a scapegoat.

Paradox

Haze in Sumatra is equally dangerous to people as haze in Singapore. However, when the haze was suffocating people in Jambi and Pekanbaru we heard no reports about pollution levels.  With the expensive apparatus the government has bought it should at least have told people about particulate matter (PM) content measuring 10 microns (PM-10), which can lead to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI).

The national media only reported generally on visibility along airport runways or in large cities and gave no warnings telling people about the dangers of the air they were breathing. PM-10 is unhealthy in concentrations exceeding 100 microgrammes per m³.

The government of Singapore has already prepared regulations providing fines for people starting fires.  Meanwhile, Indonesia is the only member of ASEAN yet to ratify the Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement; and agreement that is already 12 years old.

Is our sovereignty really being disturbed? How about our people who are choking?

By Daniel Murdiyarso, Professor in the Department of Geophysics and Meteorology at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), Indonesia, and Principal Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia.

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