Thu, 03 Aug 2000

Haze in Riau: Case of deja vu

By Roderick Bowen

PALEMBANG (JP): The vegetation fires along the Riau - North Sumatra border that started on July 7 and sent smoke across the Straits of Malacca until July 20 should have been no surprise to anybody. The European Union-funded Forest Fire Prevention and Control Project (FFPCP) based in Palembang, South Sumatra has monitored such outbreaks of fires since 1996 and has warned on many occasions that further fires can be expected in the same places and at the same times of year.

The Project has detected considerable numbers of vegetation fires in central Sumatra using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite data in each of year since 1996. This NOAA information is available up to four times a day and shows the location of fires to an accuracy of around 2 kilometers.

The NOAA data, has been, and continues to be, supported by high-resolution satellite pictures supplied by the Centre For Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing of the National University of Singapore.

These pictures show fire locations to the nearest 100 meters but coverage of the areas of interest is much less regular. The satellite information has been checked by FFPCP staff during field visits to central Sumatra and there is no doubt as to the location of, or the causes of the fires.

Fires in central Sumatra have taken place each year since 1996 in the periods March to April and again in June to July. And, in each of the five years, Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore have been affected to a greater or lesser extent by smoke haze from these fires.

The present outbreak of fires, as those before them, coincided with climatically dry periods in central Sumatra. Riau's climate is humid with no distinct wet or dry seasons, but dry spells crop up every year around March and again in July. The number of fires at any one time is directly related to the amount of rain that has fallen in the previous weeks.

The fires themselves, and the resulting smoke haze, are a direct consequence of the plantation development program that is being pursued in central Sumatra.

The area was formerly well-wooded but heavy, non-sustainable, logging has seriously depleted the forest. In many cases the damage to the natural forest has been so great that its successful re-growth is unlikely. National and provincial land- planning authorities have thus allocated many former forests for conversion to estate crops -- the great majority for oil palm estates.

This change of land use is now taking place in the coastal wetlands along the border of Riau and North Sumatra provinces. Conversion is particularly extensive where the districts of Tapanuli Selatan, Labuhan Batu, Kampar and Bengkalis meet.

Similar widespread conversion is also occurring in the coastal swamps southeast of Tanjungbalai in North Sumatra and Riau, as well as in the coastal peat swamps of Pasaman and Pesisir Selatan districts in West Sumatra and in the extensive swamps of Ogan Komering Ilir district in South Sumatra.

It is fires lit by estate companies to burn off the remaining felled trees that have no commercial value, and the residual undergrowth that are the source of most of the smoke. All companies in the area take advantage of the same spells of dry weather and fire numbers; smoke thus rises sharply over three or four days and remains at a peak until fresh rain quenches them and puts an end to new burns.

All the fires are planned. They are thus not wildfires.

The type of land being opened up in central Sumatra adds to the smoke haze problem. As noted above, many of the areas being planted to oil palm are in wetlands. The soils in these areas have a high content of plant remains.

This partly rotted plant debris that makes up peat soils means that the "soil" itself can burn in dry periods. Such fires are particularly smoky as they smolder rather than burn cleanly. Dry weather fires in deep peat become deeply-rooted and are almost impossible to extinguish until they are put out by the return of the rains and a rising watertable.

The fertility of such peat soils is usually very low and infrastructure development is difficult and expensive. There is also a history of failure where agriculture-based transmigration schemes have been attempted on coastal peats.

Despite these drawbacks companies are keen to plant the sizable areas of peats that can be found not only in Riau and North Sumatra but also in other provinces along the east-coast of Sumatra. Less extensive, although ecologically equally important, wetland peats are also dotted along the west coast of the island.

The reasons for this invasion of the wetlands of Sumatra are not hard to find. Prime amongst them is the acute shortage of remaining dryland that are free from claims by farmers to land ownership and land use rights.

Under the New Order regime traditional land rights were largely ignored and large blocks of prime land were made available to companies for plantation development. Under the current more transparent and less repressive regime, companies prefer to avoid conflict with their increasingly vocal neighbors.

A secondary, but still important, consideration in choosing to move into wetland areas is that some of the additional development costs incurred by a company can be offset against the sale price of any valuable commercial timber species that are extracted before the land is burnt.

Conversion of forest land to oil palm is an important part of Riau's development strategy. According to the Environment Impact Management Agency in Pekanbaru, 261 companies have land allocations for plantation estate development.

This is an admirable objective provided that the land is suitable for the desired use, and provided that conservation needs are respected and that existing land rights are recognized. However, it is doubtful if these caveats are being met in Riau.

The 1999 provincial spatial plan shows that 334,500 hectares of conversion forest remained in Riau. Despite this sizable allocation recent research by the International Center For Forestry Research based in Bogor shows that this is insufficient to meet targets.

New oil palm plantation areas are thus being allowed on lands that are still officially designated as production forest as well as within protected forests. This "new" land is increasingly being taken from areas with deep peat soils and is thus nominally protected from development.

Swamp forest on peat soils in Riau cover 4.3 million hectares or 27 percent of the total peatland of Indonesia. If these areas continue to be cleared by estate companies using fire, the result will certainly be further outbreaks of dense, trans-boundary smoke haze pollution.

The writer is the team leader of the forest fire prevention and control project in Palembang, South Sumatra. It started in 1995 under the European Commission and the Indonesian government.