No haze from South Sumatra this year, says Indonesian governor Alex Noerdin

by Audrey Tan

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Efforts have been taken to reduce the risk of forest fires in the wake of the 2015 haze episode.

There will be no haze from the province of South Sumatra this year, said an Indonesian governor on Thursday (April 7).

Efforts have been taken to reduce the risk of forest fires in the wake of the 2015 haze episode, and there was no haze last year (2016), said Alex Noerdin, governor of South Sumatra.

"This year, we are strengthening our efforts... No fire means no haze from South Sumatra province this year, and next year, and next year," said Noerdin. South Sumatra was where most of the fires that contributed to the 2015 haze burned.

The Indonesian official was speaking to the media on the sidelines of an international conference on haze, organised by think-tank  Singapore Institute of International Affairs and held at St Regis Singapore.

In 2015, the region was plagued with the worst haze on record, as warmer and drier weather caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon resulted in the forests in Indonesia burning harder and for a longer time. Most of the fires from that episode were concentrated in the South Sumatra province, where large swaths of peatlands are located.

Peatlands become flammable when they are drained for pulpwood or palm oil plantations. Farmers and large agroforestry companies have also been blamed for starting the fires, through slash-and-burn land clearance methods, for example.

But since the intense haze episode, fire prevention efforts have been ongoing. For example, canals in the plantations have been blocked to re-wet the peatlands, and educational outreach have been conducted to reach out to small farmers about alternatives to slash-and-burn, Noerdin said.

During the event, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli lauded Noerdin and the Indonesian government for taking "positive action" to tackle haze.

Masagos pointed out that there were just over 100 hot spots in Indonesia in 2016, a vast improvement from the thousands of hotspots recorded the year before.

"Indonesia has taken positive actions to contain the number of hot spots over the past year," said Masagos.

For example, the Indonesian government responded quickly when land and forest fires occurred in Riau in January due to drier weather conditions. "This allowed for the timely deployment of resources and tighter coordination between the central and provincial authorities in containing the fires," he said.

Masagos also pointed to longer-term measures put in place by Indonesia to address forest and land fires at source. In 2016, the Indonesian government announced a five-year moratorium on new licenses to establish palm oil concessions.

"The moratorium will halt the draining and clearing of new carbon- rich peatland. This decision extends to concession land previously licensed to plantation companies as well," said Masagos.

He added that Jakarta's move was also praised by the United Nations Environment Programme's executive director Erik Solheim, who called it a "positive and historic decision, both for Indonesia and for global efforts to tackle climate change".

But beyond the efforts of governments, Masagos said everyone has a role to play in ensuring the region remains haze-free.

Civil society, for example, should continue fostering the environmental consciousness of people, while keeping businesses on their toes as it pushes for greater transparency.

Major buyers should also insist on purchasing from producers who subscribe to sustainable standards, Masagos said, adding that the Singapore Government will take the lead in this by buying printing paper from certified sources.

"Let us have everyone on board this journey towards a more sustainable and responsible agroforestry sector as there is no other way," said Masagos.