Skies may be clearer but 'keep up efforts to curb fires'

Indonesian firefighters putting out a fire in Banyuasin, South Sumatra. PHOTO: AFP

Efforts to combat forest fires in Indonesia causing haze should not let up just because the skies have cleared leading to better air quality, key stakeholders have urged.

Although the haze has abated for now, WWF Indonesia and paper manufacturer April Group - with large land holdings in Indonesia - told The Straits Times that there should be no relaxation of the drive to fix the problem.

"It would be very sad if this momentum that is built up within the government, within the corporates, within the region, fizzles out," said Mr Aditya Bayunanda, WWF Indonesia Forest Commodity Market Transformation leader.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of a sustainable development forum here, he cited key "drivers" to tackle the haze issue.

These include protecting peatland areas, rethinking ways to manage forests and addressing how small landholders clear plots.

These could be medium-sized companies that hold 50ha to 100ha - not "big enough to be in the radar of government" but they are also contributing to the haze problem.

Peatlands are particularly flammable and generate more smoke and carbon emissions than when trees in the forest are burning.

April Group, a leading manufacturer in the paper and pulp industry with extensive operations in Indonesia, said it set up a "peat experts working group" in June to look at the best ways to handle this issue.

April and its supply partners have concessions covering 1 million ha in Indonesia - about half of that peatland.

Managing director Goh Lin Piao said April plants on about 480,000ha. The firm has had to deal with 900 fires, both inside and outside its concessions, this year.

"It is not whether it is peatland or not, it is whether it is well managed," said Mr Goh, adding that April has initiatives to educate communities living on its concessions about the haze and measures to restore and conserve peatland. Over the last 10 years, Mr Goh said April has lost some US$140 million (S$196 million) as a result of the fires.

Mr Goh expects the Indonesian authorities to review laws that allow farmers to burn up to 2ha of land for agricultural purposes. Issues surrounding land tenure of concessions should also be looked into, he added. About 23 per cent of its land hosts communities living in villages.

Wong Siew Ying

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline Skies may be clearer but 'keep up efforts to curb fires'. Subscribe