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Saturday October 1, 2011

Why Indonesia cannot stop the fires and haze

SOME years ago, I travelled from Pontianak into the centre of South Kalimantan during the burning season in a hired car.

We drove many hours through a country that was completely covered in fire and smoke, but mostly smoke. It was a strange experience, not at all like what we had expected. It was quite safe to drive even though the fires were burning right up to the roadsides. There were people living among the burning vegetation in little huts all along the way, spaced out at wide intervals and carrying on as if everything was normal. No property was damaged and no lives were lost. Here and there a small flame would flare up but only for a short time and then the vegetation would continue to smoulder. These so-called forest fires were not at all like the life-threatening forest fires of Australia, the United States, and the Mediterranean. What was going on?

Our driver told us the story. The huts were occupied by settlers who were the children of the original Transmigrasi migrants from Java. Their parents had been shipped in by the government to occupy land schemes sponsored by the government. These land schemes were like the Felda schemes in Malaysia, on land cleared from forests. That was one generation ago. The children of these land schemes were now spreading out all over Kalimantan and clearing land for themselves.

The custom in Kalimantan is that any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it. Any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. As a result, each settler clears as much land as possible although he is able to farm only a small part of it. The rest would revert back to jungle but is prevented from doing so by fires set by the settlers themselves whenever the weather is dry. So the same land is burnt year after year after year. These are fires on low vegetation, deliberately set by hundreds of thousands of independent poor farmers who barely survive from hand to mouth, living in absolutely primitive conditions. When will it end? When somebody buys the land and converts it to permanent organised agriculture, as for growing oil palm. The land that the settlers clear and claim represent their only hope of escape from poverty.

The timber industry could be blamed because in logging, they create roads into the forests and leave behind the dead branches and leaves that can be set on fire in the first round of burning. The oil palm industry can be blamed if it gives the settlers hope by ultimately buying land that has been cleared and repeatedly burnt. But it is ultimately the social conditions in the country that are responsible for this state of affairs.

If Malaysia did not have a strict land-ownership system whereby people could legally own land in perpetuity or for specified periods, we would quickly see a land grab and total disappearance of all our forests, followed by annual fires to keep land cleared. Our land laws were established and enforced by the British when they had absolute power to do so, in the name of the sultans. It would be difficult for countries without such laws to establish and enforce such laws now.

After that drive into the interior of Kalimantan, I visited the peat areas near the coast. These areas were also heavily covered in smoke, to the extent that the airport had to be closed, but the concept here was different. The fires were set by Bugis rice farmers from Sulawesi who had cleared the forests by fire after their gigantic ramin trees had been extracted by loggers. The peat is many metres deep and unsuitable for growing rice, so the farmers grow pineapples and other acid-tolerant plants. Every year, during the dry season, they set the peat on fire and burn of a part of it. Eventually, after about 10 years, all the peat will be burnt off and they will be able to grow rice on mineral soil.

The annual fires in Kalimantan and, I assume in Sumatra also, are not spontaneous forest fires but deliberate agricultural fires started and kept alive by hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers. Solutions like sending in the fire brigade, or raising the penalty for oil palm growers and loggers for setting forests on fire, sound good on paper but does not come anywhere near to addressing the issues.

I cannot help but suspect that the real reasons for the fires and haze were known long ago by people on the ground, but it served the purpose of the international environmental NGOs and the international news agencies to put the blame on their favourite baddies the logging and oil palm industries. So long as the problem is not examined honestly, no implementable solution is likely to be found.

l Botanist and researcher Francis Ng is the former deputy director-general of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. He is now the botanical consultant to Bandar Utama City Centre Sdn Bhd and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre.

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