El Nino, Indonesian Peatland Conversion Add Up to Haze Risk

Jul 03, 2014

The Jakarta Globe. Jakarta. Environmental groups and scientists fear a predicted El Nino weather pattern this year could exacerbate Indonesia’s destructive forest fires, which in 2013 left thousands of people sick, closed schools and sparked a diplomatic row with Singapore.

Meteorologists have predicted an El Nino weather pattern is likely this year, meaning Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia will see drier-than-usual weather and an increased possibility of drought.

Nigel Sizer, the global director of the World Resources Institute’s forests program, said this could have a significant impact on the threat of forest fires in Indonesia.

“We have been issuing warnings that this year could be a very, very bad year for fires,” said Sizer, speaking at a panel discussion on forest fires hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club on Wednesday. “Last year was very bad of course, this year could be worse.”

Fires in Sumatra’s Riau province in June last year closed schools, airports and saw thousands of people suffer from respiratory tract diseases.

The haze from the fires, most of which were said to have been deliberately lit to clear land for agriculture including oil palm and pulp plantations, blanketed the skies of neighboring countries.

Air pollution levels reached record levels in Singapore, leading to Singapore’s lawmakers introducing the draft Transboundary Haze Pollution Act. If passed, it would see foreign companies fined for polluting the country’s air.

Critics have said the Indonesian government is not doing enough to combat the fires.

Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said there was a lack of capacity to fight the fires and disagreement between national and local government as to who was responsible.

“We talk a lot but not a lot is happening,” Herry said.

Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesian forest campaign at Greenpeace International, called on the ministry of environment to give Indonesia’s peatlands full protection. He also said the government needed to stop treating forest fires as a natural disaster.

“For me peatland is a dynamic and unique ecosystem but if that peatland is not being managed properly then it will become a source of fuel for forest fire,” he said. “So if you’re talking about how to stop forest fires, one key element that we need to talk about is how to stop making fuel – by clearing and draining peatland.”

About 80 percent of Riau is covered by peatland, as is much of Kalimantan, Bustar said.

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