Sumatran fires: hype about the symptoms, insufficient action on the disease


Source: Wetlands International

Sumatra, Indonesia. The health and climate impacts of large peatland and forest fires in Sumatra provide yet another harrowing reminder of the unsustainability of palm oil and pulp wood plantations on peat.

Massive fires raging on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have triggered warnings from health authorities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and sparked a row among the three countries regarding responsibility for the fires.

However, less emphasis has been placed on the underlying problems leading to such massive and recurring fires. “To prevent fires, Indonesia and Malaysia need to protect their remaining peat swamp forests and remove or better manage the already existing plantations on peatlands. In addition, current bureaucratic impediments on direct foreign investment in the rehabilitation of degraded peatlands should be removed and procedures to develop Ecosystem Restoration Concessions should be shortened and facilitated”, said Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International‘s Head of Programme and Strategy for Wetlands and Climate.

Most haze stems from fires on peatlands

In recent years, a large proportion of Southeast Asia’s peat swamp forests have been severely degraded as a result of deforestation, peat drainage and badly planned development of plantations and agriculture. Drained peatlands are extremely prone to fire. Since much of the peat burns underground, the peat material is burned incompletely, creating more smoke than normal fires; in addition, these fires are very difficult to extinguish. Peat fires are therefore the key source of smoke haze1. A map developed by SarVision clearly shows that many of the recent fires occur on peatlands.

Recent research2 has shown that fires in Sumatra are highly concentrated in heavily degraded areas (140 fires per 100 km2) and occur less frequently in pristine peat swamp forest (7 fires per 100 km2). The most effective fire prevention strategy is therefore to preserve pristine peat swamp areas and to rewet and rehabilitate degraded peatlands, returning them to their natural water-logged condition.

Unsustainable plantations on peat

Media coverage of the fires has highlighted the role of palm oil plantations in fuelling the fires. Nevertheless, the map developed by SarVision and research done by advocacy group Eyes on the Forest3 show that plantations for pulp wood production on peatlands are responsible for many of the fires in Riau province, Sumatra. Both the palm oil and the pulp wood industry should take responsibility for developing and implementing solutions for the issues caused by their activities in peatlands.

“To effectively tackle the issue of fires, Indonesia should encourage the removal of oil palm and pulp wood concessions from peat, e.g. through land swap deals, moving them to mineral soils. A roadmap for peatland rehabilitation should be developed, including community-based cultivation of indigenous peat swamp plant species that require no drainage and create a steady supply of many valuable products such as oils, latex, medicines, fruits for food, besides their timber value” said Nyoman Suryadiputra, Director of Wetlands International - Indonesia.

“Peatland rehabilitation could be further facilitated by, for instance, allowing direct private sector investment in peatland rehabilitation under Indonesia’s REDD+ Strategy, as well as lifting barriers and shortening procedures for development of Ecosystem Restoration Concessions”, Suryadiputra argued. “International cooperation is needed (including between the three impacted countries), focused on the necessary preventive measures to stop the recurrence of peat fires”.

Every year (except in very wet years) huge fires destroy vast agricultural, forestry and nature assets, causing major air pollution problems with disastrous economic consequences and contributing hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions that affect the world’s climate. Research has shown that the fires are man-made, and can be traced back to land clearing activities of oil palm plantations of both large companies as well as smallholders.

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