Tactful behind-the-scene negotiations away from the glare of the media might yield the results we need, writes Rani Rasiah.
Large tracts of South East Asia are again shrouded with the haze from peat fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
The people of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore are distressed that the haze has recurred yet again.
And then the blame game started. After criticising her Indonesian counterpart on social media, Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin announced on 12 September 2019 that Dr Mahathir Mohamad would be writing to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo.
Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar retaliated the next day, accusing four Malaysian plantation companies of playing a role in sparking off the peat fires.
Sime Darby retorted that the fire incident on 3 September 2019 was outside its operational area and was started by local Indonesian farmers.
And the finger-pointing goes on and on.
The people of Asean are sick and tired of this circus. We want some effective long-term solutions to be implemented.
The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) is sceptical of the Indonesian minister’s claim that Malaysian plantation companies caused this year’s fires. Our companies may be quite addicted to their profits, but they are not stupid. They know that they would be in serious trouble if they conducted any open burning and set off peat fires. That would play into the hands of the anti-palm oil lobby in the EU and the US.
The PSM strongly urges the Indonesian authorities to charge these Malaysian companies in court if there is evidence that these companies did set off the peat fires by practising open burning. Push for the maximum penalties if they are found guilty.
Large oil palm companies, both Malaysian and Indonesian, claim that the open burning by small local farmers in areas within their land concessions that haven’t yet been developed (by the plantation companies) is what sparks off the peat fires every year.
Surely satellite images could quickly establish the truth. Where did the fires start this year? Which were the parties that were clearing land in that vicinity? The plantation companies or the small local farmers?
The Indonesian government should set up a taskforce with the participation of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore to look at the satellite images, and then carry out site visits to establish who the guilty parties are. If it is true that burning by small farmers is the main initiator of the peat fires every year, then that issue has to be tackled. The Indonesian government could also pass legislation imposing heavy penalties for open burning.
At the same time Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei should contribute to a fund to buy biomass from these small farmers. This biomass could be used to generate electricity for the local population.
If a proper study using satellite data and ground visits fails to identify a perpetrator for any particular site, then the possibility of underground pockets of smouldering peat that “survive” the wet season has to be considered.
Satellite images will identify areas which are the early hot spots every year. If ground visits fail to identify recalcitrant idiots who keep starting the fires, then the “smouldering peat pocket” possibility has to be considered. Also, technical solutions centred on raising the water table in that area to levels high enough to eradicate these smouldering pockets have to be explored.
The excessive lowering of the water table in the regions that are now catching fire should be recognised as the major cause of the peat fires. Previous Indonesian governments embarked on huge drainage schemes to drain off marshes to “rehabilitate” the land for large-scale agriculture. Between 1969 and 1995, 1.2 million hectares of swampland in Sumatra and Kalimantan were reclaimed for agriculture.
But in some areas, for example, the mega rice project of Central Kalimantan, they failed to establish farming. There are therefore several regions that have been over-drained and abandoned. As a result, during dry seasons, 10-20 layers of peat soil become dry and easily combustible.
This over-drying of peat soil can be countered by closing off some of the drainage canals and by building dams at two to three kilometres intervals on the remaining canals. Obviously, this will need input from geologists and engineers, for each region will have its specific characteristics, but it isn’t exactly rocket science. But it may be costly.
We urge the Indonesian government to set up a taskforce with Asean participation to look more closely at the situation on the ground and adopt long-term solutions. The other Asean countries should be prepared to share in the cost of this huge project – the areas in south Sumatra and in Kalimantan that have been over-drained are quite immense.
We have the technology and, collectively, the funds. What we now need is political maturity on the part of Malaysian and Singaporean ministers to engage the Indonesians.
Bickering with Indonesian ministers on social media might not be the best way to proceed. Tactful behind-the-scene negotiations away from the glare of the media might yield the results we need.
Our environment and our health depend on this. Can the PH ministers rise to the challenge?