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Haze in two weeks' time?

By Nazry Bahrawi in Pangkalan Kerinci, Riau, TODAY
20 June 2007

Somewhere on an open airstrip in Riau, an airplane is ready to spring into action as a fire-fighting machine. The AT602 plane, used more frequently to spray fertiliser on plantations, can also carry about 2,400 litres of water — enough to help douse fires in the haze-prone region.

But, it hasn't been busy on that front lately. Its owner, pulp and paper manufacturer Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April), had offered to share the one-seater plane with the Riau authorities to control fires about three months ago. The firm has yet to receive a reply.

"We proposed it in March this year but they (the Riau government) haven't signed it yet. They probably will once the fire starts," said Mr Brad Sanders, head of fire and safety at the Singapore-based April.

And that would be soon — the haze period is slated to start in two weeks' time. Officials from five Asean countries, including Singapore, are in Jambi to hear how Indonesia plans to tackle the problem this year (see box).

Forest fires in parts of Indonesia, such as the Riau and Jambi provinces in Sumatra, are largely the cause of the transboundary haze that had hit Asean in the past few years. Last October, Singapore's haze situation reached unhealthy PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) levels — between 101 to 200.

With two weeks left to the dry season, farmers in Riau are preparing to clear their lands using the inexpensive slash-and-burn method — inevitably leading to forest fires — again.

Last year, the province recorded almost 9,000 hotspots, said Mr Sanders. But only about 2 per cent of these took place within April's plantation areas, which measures more than twice the size of Singapore.

And this is not solely because of their fire-fighting capabilities, which includes another 70 full-time fire-fighters, 20 pick-up trucks, an airboat and a helicopter, said Mr Sanders. This, he believes, is also due to April's active attempts to provide economically viable avenues for locals living in its jurisdiction to steer clear of slash and burn practices.

He said: "We help communities develop small profitable enterprises such as haircut shops and honey production. So, people have other sources of income other than the agrarian-based one. There will be a lesser chance of them resorting to slash and burn."

But there is only so much one company can do.

A large part of the problem in tackling the haze situation boils down to bureaucracy and a lack of political will — at all levels. "In Indonesia, there is really no system in place to respond to all the sources of fire at one time. The problem here is that the people want the fires to burn. They are lighting them on purpose to clear the land. ... It's a conundrum," said Mr Sanders.

He also cited the inefficient use of two fire-fighting airplanes that the Indonesian government leased from Russia late last year: "By the time they (the airplanes) arrived, the rainy season had already started. They spent US$5.2 million ($8 million) and it wasn't used effectively, unfortunately."

Mr Fitrian Ardiansyah, programme director of climate and energy for WWF Indonesia, believes Indonesia's commitment to reduce the number of hotspots by 50 per cent this year is a "big challenge".

He told Today: "Transforming political pledge to action on the ground requires more than just willingness. Infrastructure and coordination to prevent and fight fires need to be under one command. Nowadays, the blame game is still happening among different sectors and levels — that is, between the central and local governments." - TODAY/sh


It has promised to reduce its hotspots by 50 per cent this year.

And today will see Indonesia updating its immediate neighbours of its progress towards achieving this objective.

Representatives from five Asean countries – Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – are in Jambi to attend the third meeting of the sub-regional steering committee on the transboundary haze pollution.

Singapore's Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim – leading the Singapore delegation – told reporters last week that he hopes Indonesia can keep their promise.

He also said that Singapore had submitted to Indonesia a haze masterplan that covers fire prevention and suppression, legislation and enforcement as well as regional and international collaboration.

But Indonesian Forestry Minister M S Kaban was quoted by its national news Antara as saying that he had not received the proposal.

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