Greenpeace International says more than 100,000 people are dying each year because they are inhaling smoke particles from peatland fires in Indonesia.
The environmental organisation has called on the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to act urgently to protect peat forests in the country before his term of office ends in July.
Large swathes of peatland have been destroyed by fires, particularly in the Sumatran province of Riau, but also in northern Sumatra. A noxious haze spreads every year to neighbouring Malaysia and to Singapore, causing severe health problems in Indonesia and in towns on the western side of the Malaysian peninsula.
“How the president deals with this emerging global threat and public health emergency will define his green legacy,” said the forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Yuyun Indradi. “Industrial plantation companies are turning parts of Sumatra into a giant tinderbox. Will the president take urgent action to strengthen laws that protect all forest and peatland before his term is up, or will he see his legacy go up in smoke?”
Greenpeace says that modelling by researchers in 2012 attributes an average of 110,000 deaths a year in Riau to peat and forest fires. “These deaths are primarily associated with long-term seasonal exposure to smoke particles,” Yuyun said. “This increases to nearly 300,000 deaths during an El Niño year. The fires are also responsible for destroying people’s livelihoods.”
Indonesia is the only member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that has not ratified the association’s Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed in 2002.
As this year’s burning season approaches, a new law has been proposed in Singapore that aims to punish firms found liable for causing haze, but there is a big question mark over how such a law could be implemented. Pinpointing exactly who is responsible for the fires is extremely difficult.
Peatlands are critical carbon stores and are typically saturated with water, but when cleared and drained for industrial-scale oil palm and pulp and paper plantations, they become prone to fire.
Greenpeace has just released a short documentary, “Forest Fire Families”. One of the people interviewed is Laskar Harianja, a villager whose farm was destroyed. He talks about what happened on his land: “Before, when the forest was still intact, the soil could conserve water and protect the peat. Now the fires burn much deeper, and much faster. When the fire came, my three children and I tried to extinguish it, [but] we lost everything.”
Greenpeace says that protecting Indonesia’s peatlands is key to reducing the likelihood of the fires responsible for the haze wave, but there is still no legal protection of all peatland and forests.
“Protecting all peatland and forests is the best long-term solution we have to stop the fires and avoid a public health disaster in the future,” Yuyun said.
New mapping analysis from Greenpeace shows that fires are five times more likely to occur on peatland than on mineral soils and 75 percent of peat fires occur in Riau.
The analysis shows that fire hotspots in 2013 were 3.5 times more frequent on peat that was not forested as of 2011 than on peat that remained forested.
Riau – the Indonesian province that has the most oil palm plantations – accounts for just five percent of the country’s land area, but 40 percent of all fire hotspots and nearly three-quarters of all fire hotspots on peat.
“In May 2011, Indonesia introduced a two‐year moratorium on permits for new concessions in primary forests and peatlands,” Greenpeace states in its new briefing paper “Sumatra: Going up in smoke”. The moratorium was a welcome step, Greenpeace said, but it didn’t protect all forests or peatlands.
Greenpeace analysis shows that, in February 2014, more than 30% of fire hotspots occurred on land that was meant to be protected under the moratorium. Of all the fire hotspots on moratorium land, nearly 80 percent occurred in peat areas, and this was despite the moratorium’s stated goal to temporarily halt new land clearance in these areas.
The president is keen to tout a “green” economic transition and the moratorium was a step in the right direction, Greenpeace said, but little had been done since then. “We urge the president to issue a strong regulation that protects all peatlands before his term is up, and help diffuse what is quickly becoming a carbon time bomb.”
Yuyun added: “Companies including Colgate-Palmolive, Nestlé, the plantation companies Golden-Agri Resources and Asia Pulp & Paper, Wilmar International, and more recently Procter & Gamble have pledged to eliminate forest destruction from their supply chains following global pressure and campaigning from Greenpeace. We urge other companies like IOI, Kuala Lumpur Kepong, Musim Mas, and the APRIL/RGE Group to commit to no deforestation.”
This year is widely expected to be an El Niño year, which would bring extended drought conditions in Indonesia. It’s thought that the impact of the fires during the burning season could exceed that experienced last year.
In October and November 1997, the haze from fires in Indonesia spread as far the Philippines to the north, Sri Lanka to the west, and northern Australia to the south. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, there was a pollution index reading of 860.
An Air Pollutant Index reading of 301 or more is considered to be hazardous, 201 to 300 is very unhealthy, 101 to 200 is unhealthy, 51 to 100 is moderate, and zero to 50 is rated as good. A sustained reading of above 400 can be life-threatening to ill and elderly people.
In June last year, air pollution levels hit 401 in Singapore and 746 in Muar in Malaysia’s Johar state. States of emergency were declared in Muar and the nearby town of Ledang, and in the worst affected areas of Riau. Hospitals in Riau recorded increases in cases of asthma and lung, eye and skin problems and Malaysians also reported breathing problems, headaches, eye problems, and skin rashes.
Indonesians on Sumatra and their neighbours in Malaysia and Singapore have suffered the pollution from the annual slash-and-burn clearance for years.
When the haze from Sumatra spread in June last year, the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) said initial data showed that about half of the fires were burning inside oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but their destruction is causing four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Riau is estimated to hold 40 percent of Indonesia’s peatland carbon stores, equivalent to more than a year’s worth of global greenhouse gas emissions, with peat reaching depths of 14 metres or more in some locations.
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.
Indonesia is now the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following behind the U.S. and China.
No less than 10 million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.
Fires on peatland are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and it can take hours to put out a blaze on just one hectare of land.
Greenpeace is calling for all peatland to be protected, no matter how deep it is or where it is located. Planting on peat more than three metres deep is illegal in Indonesia, but the law is widely flouted.
Protecting deep peat alone is not enough, Greenpeace states. “Plantation development around the edge of a peat dome, even in areas where the peat depth may be one metre or less, threatens the whole system. Drainage, for example, for oil palm plantations, drains off water from adjoining forested areas, and the general water table begins to fall.”
Land burning by oil palm plantation owners was the main cause of the massive fires that wreaked ecological, economic, and health havoc in Indonesia and Malaysia in 1997-1998.
Fires burned thousands of squares miles of rainforest, plantations, conversion forest, and scrubland in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Lombok, and Sarawak.
According to government statistics, 750,000 hectares were affected, but environmental organisations said at least 1,714,000 hectares went up in smoke. By mid-1998 the estimate had climbed beyond five million hectares. It was estimated that, in 1998, between 180,280 and 284,000 hectares burned in East Kalimantan alone.
In March 2012, at least 2,800 hectares of the environmentally precious Tripa peat forest in northern Sumatra were devastated by fires, and most of the hotspots occurred on the deepest peat. The illegal burning is being carried out in an area that should be off-limits for conversion as it lies within the Leuser Ecosystem.
The area is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world, but it is estimated that at least one hundred of them have perished in forest clearing and peat burning.
Greenpeace is calling for the following actions:
- Enforcement of the existing moratorium and its expansion to ensure that all peatlands are off-limits to new oil palm, pulp, and other plantations;
- a strengthening of the draft peat regulation to guarantee the full protection of all peatlands, including those within concession boundaries;
- the development and implementation of a government plan for the protection, rehabilitation, and sustainable management of forest and peatland landscapes, including community-based solutions;
- a review of existing concession permits and a crack-down on illegality;
- the establishment of a national public register of all concession types, including oil palm, pulp and coal;
- the development of an independent national deforestation monitoring system; and
- the creation of a database of low-carbon lands that are potentially available for development.
Greenpeace briefing: Sumatra:Going up in smoke