Singapore team digs in to help Riau village combat haze

PM.Haze volunteers Iris Ng (front), 25, and Bernice Lau, 36, dig up the peat soil so it can be packed into empty rice sacks to construct the canal block.
PM.Haze volunteers (from left) Low Ying Hui, 29, and Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26, and PM.Haze executive director Zhang Wen, 28, were part of a group of 13 who were in Sungai Tohor earlier this month. ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
The canal block can trap enough water for bathing and swimming. The water is also used to irrigate sago trees, which are the villagers' main source of income. PM.Haze volunteers (from left) Low Ying Hui, 29, and Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26, and PM.H
PM.Haze volunteers Iris Ng (front), 25, and Bernice Lau, 36, dig up the peat soil so it can be packed into empty rice sacks to construct the canal block.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
The filled sacks are stacked in a wooden structure in the canal to trap water and keep the peatland moist. This canal block required about 250 sacks.
The filled sacks are stacked in a wooden structure in the canal to trap water and keep the peatland moist. This canal block required about 250 sacks.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
A worker with the discarded bark of sago trees after the sago has been processed.
The canal block can trap enough water for bathing and swimming. The water is also used to irrigate sago trees, which are the villagers’ main source of income.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
The canal block can trap enough water for bathing and swimming. The water is also used to irrigate sago trees, which are the villagers' main source of income. PM.Haze volunteers (from left) Low Ying Hui, 29, and Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26, and PM.H
A worker with the discarded bark of sago trees after the sago has been processed.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG

Joint effort results in canal block that helps prevent peatland fires

A group of Singaporeans has been digging up dirt with hoes and machetes in a remote Sumatra village to help stop haze from developing.

The 13 volunteers from Singapore environmental group People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) were in Sungai Tohor, a small coastal village in Riau province, earlier this month.

They worked with residents to construct a "canal block" - used to re-wet peatland that had been drained to make way for an acacia plantation by local pulpwood company Lestari Unggul Makmur, or PT LUM.

The volunteers dug up the peat soil and packed it into empty rice sacks, which were then sewn up and stacked in a wooden structure in the canal to trap water and keep the peat moist. A sluice gate helps to control the water level.

Said volunteer Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26: "We did only a small part. It's a lot of manual work. It's tiring but (the residents) are not complaining and still smiling."

Building canal blocks is one of the measures taken by the Indonesian government to prevent peatland from drying out. Dry peat burns easily and is hard to put out as fire continues to smoulder underground and spread quickly.

Peatland fires in Indonesia were a major contributor to the 2015 haze crisis, said to be among the worst in the region's history.

CROSS-BORDER COLLABORATION

What we hope to do here is to show that it's possible for Singapore and Indonesia to work together for a common good.

MR TAN YI HAN, People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) co-founder, on working with the residents of Sungai Tohor.

RESILIENT GROUP

We only did a small part. It's a lot of manual work, it's tiring but (the residents) are not complaining and still smiling.

MR ARAVINDKUMARAN SABAPATHY, 26, a PM.Haze vounteer, on the effort it took to build the canal block.

THANK YOU, SINGAPORE

Small help is still help. I'm grateful that our Singapore friends have travelled all the way here to help us build the canal block. Working together is always better than blaming each other.

MR HERI DASWANI, 37, a Sungai Tohor resident, on the contributions of the PM.Haze volunteers. 

"What we hope to do here is show that it's possible for Singapore and Indonesia to work together for a common good," said PM.Haze co-founder Tan Yi Han.

Said Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which partnered with PM.Haze: "We want more Singaporeans to witness first hand the hard work of ordinary Indonesians to safeguard their own environment against fires and haze."

PM.Haze collaborated with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) to build the $3,000 canal block, with money raised from the public.

Volunteers told The Straits Times they had joined the trip to better understand the problem that has plagued Indonesia and its neighbours for years and how the locals are tackling it.

"We hate the haze to the core and we always complain about it," volunteer Bernice Lau, a 36-year-old teacher, said.

"Shovelling was really laborious. It was also a rather arduous trip. It took 61/2 hours on three separate boat rides to get here so I learnt that help won't be easy."

Sungai Tohor, a farming village of 1,300 people, had suffered the brunt of the haze, brought about by massive fires - which, at its peak in 2014, razed some of the community's sago and rubber plantations and cloaked the village in toxic smoke.

Residents blamed PT LUM, which had dug canals over 10km long through the peatland in its 10,390ha concession.

They filed a petition online, calling for President Joko Widodo to visit the village to see how the haze had affected their lives.

They said schools were shut down for two months and farmers lost their incomes as their plantations were destroyed.

Mr Abdul Manan, 44, who started the petition, said: "We were disappointed as we had suffered the haze for 17 years and even exported smoke to Singapore and Malaysia."

Mr Joko visited the village in November 2014 and ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to revoke PT LUM's licence and review all permits of companies located on peatland.

Concession land has since been seized from PT LUM and returned to the villagers to manage sustainably on their own. So far, 22 canal blocks have been constructed and large-scale wildfires have not returned since 2015, villagers said.

"Sago trees need lots of water to grow healthily. With these canal blocks, we now have ready water to irrigate our land and to use at home for showering and washing. But most importantly, they have helped dampen the peat and stop fires and haze," sago farmer Agus Windy, 37, told The Straits Times.

The villagers understand that canal blocking is not a comprehensive solution to the haze problem and greater preventive efforts from Indonesia are needed. Villager Heri Daswani, 37, said: "Small help is still help. I'm grateful that our Singapore friends have travelled all the way here to help us build the canal block. Working together is always better than blaming each other."

WATCH THE VIDEO

Singaporean volunteers work to build canal block in Indonesia. http://str.sg/4ufn

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore team digs in to help Riau village combat haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe