As Dry Season Starts in Indonesia, Risk of Fires — and Haze — Looms

Environmental News from Asia: 

  • There’s a degree of risk that Southeast Asia may see the return of transboundary haze this year from forest fires in Indonesia, according to a new report by a Singaporean think tank.
  • The key driver of that risk is the current high price of palm oil on the world market, which could pose an incentive for farmers in Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil, to expand their plantations, including by clearing land with fire.
  • In anticipation of the dry season, which starts in July, some local governments in Indonesia are putting in place policies to prevent fires, including sanctions for companies using fire to clear their concessions.

A new analysis warns of the potential for forest fires in Indonesia that could spread smoke to neighboring countries as this year’s dry season sets in, following two years of haze-free skies across this part of Southeast Asia.

In their “Haze Outlook 2022” report, researchers at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) said there’s a higher risk this year than last of the region experiencing some fires and transboundary haze. They looked at three factors — weather, policies, and people — to determine that the risk comes primarily from the prospect of forest fires being set to clear land for plantations. Current record-high prices for palm oil and other forest commodities pose an incentivize for small farmers and big companies alike to expand their operations.

In their report, the researchers cited an NGO warning of the potential for degraded peatlands in several provinces on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo being burned.

“Fires in Riau, Jambi, and South Sumatra might reach Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia, while fires in West Kalimantan might affect air quality in East Malaysia,” the report said. “However, the NGO noted that this haze would be ‘short and limited’ compared to previous haze years.”

This region of Southeast Asia had experienced several episodes of severe transboundary haze in the past, particularly in 1997/1998, 2015, and 2019, when smoke from fires in Sumatra blew across the Malacca Strait to Singapore and Malaysia, even going as far as southern Thailand, a distance of more than 600 kilometers (370 miles).

Milder dry seasons in 2020 and 2021 saw no severe regional transboundary haze.

In Indonesia, local governments are bracing for the onset of the dry season with policies to prevent fires. In West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, authorities are prioritizing a law enforcement approach to deter companies from using fires to clear land.

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Source: Mongabay

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