An End to Secondhand Smoke: Can Southeast Asia Finally Breathe a Sigh of Relief?

21 August 2017

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Indonesia -  It was news that Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia were eager to hear. “There should be no more haze going to the neighbors,” Nazir Foead, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (PRA), told reporters in May at a press conference in Jakarta. “Fire will still happen, smoke will come out, but it can be put out immediately, so it shouldn’t create the transboundary haze.”

Foead was referring to Indonesia’s dry-season fires that perennially spread air pollution over the archipelago nation, as well as to nearby countries. The problem became acute during an El Niño–driven drought in 2015. For two months, a smoke plume stretched halfway around the globe at the equator as more than 10,000 square miles burned — an area the size of Belgium. At least 19 people were killed and half a million were sickened by fouled air that pumped more carbon into the atmosphere in that period than the UK does in a year.

That environmental disaster and the subsequent international outcry finally spurred Indonesia into action. President Joko Widodo enacted a moratorium on new palm-oil and coal-mining licenses — one that may become permanent if the Ministry of Environment has its way — and beefed up fire-suppression and anticorruption efforts. In 2016 he created the PRA to end the practices that led to the fires and to begin restoration of ravaged landscapes.

Still, last month five Indonesian provinces declared states of emergency as blazes burned out of control. As the dry season progresses, it’s likely haze will once again reach Singapore and Malaysia. “It was premature to make claims [this year] will be haze-free,” says Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “Fire hot spots have already been identified in Indonesia.”

But this does not necessarily mean the PRA is a failure. It may mean the agency’s mission — eliminating fires in just two years — was unrealistic. In fact, the country has taken real steps to abandon the destructive practices of the past, and that gives hope that not only will it take measures to protect the country’s rich biodiversity but also to reduce its impact on global climate.

Here’s what Foead and his agency are up against:

Farmers on small holdings start many of the fires, burning rainforest to clear land for crops and livestock or to remove the previous harvest’s waste material from their fields. Then there are the industrial-scale blazes set to clear forests for palm-oil and pulpwood plantations, even though such practices are illegal under Indonesian law, accompanied by the draining of peat swamps for additional plantation acreage.

During particularly dry seasons, like the one in 2015, the burning can creep underground and ignite vast, carbon-rich peat deposits that underlie the Indonesian lowlands. When that happens the fire has found a virtually inexhaustible fuel source, and the smoldering can continue until the monsoons arrive, typically in November. In addition to spewing carbon into the atmosphere, the peat fires also discharge fine particulate matter. When it enters people’s lungs, it can cause significant respiratory and other health problems.

The ultimate goal of the PRA is to restore some 7,700 square miles of peatlands. This year alone it expects to restore some 1,500 square miles. In July agency workers began blocking a large canal in central Borneo — one of the hot spots in 2015 — rewetting a large area and making it less likely to burn. The broad waterway is part of an intricate network of canals dug in the mid-1990s during the Suharto regime to drain peatlands for rice production. The nutrient-poor soil rendered the so-called Mega Rice Project a bust, leaving behind a dessicated tropical wasteland that burns almost annually.

Of course, fixing decades of bad practices is a challenge, and restoration alone is not enough. A big part of the problem has been lack of enforcement of the existing weak laws governing land use in Indonesia. “There has been very mixed follow-up, and research in the field shows that the plantation sector is still not changing its practices,” says Rahmawati. Greenpeace workers have seen continued expansion despite the moratorium and are concerned that enforcement on the ground does not yet match the president’s rhetoric.

This bring up a thornier challenge: evaluating change in a country as large and complex as Indonesia. Many believe there’s only one way to tell if the new policies are working. “The ultimate test of the restoration works that are being undertaken will be during the next El Niño,” says Almo Pradana, project manager for peatland restoration at the World Resources Institute Indonesia. Most likely, that’ll be in 2019.

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, a huge percentage of which is due to deforestation and fires. If it can make progress, then it gives hope to the rest of the world as it faces climate change. “The goal is to eliminate the problem by 2020,” says Robert Field, an associate research scientist at Columbia University with expertise in Indonesian fires. “That is ambitious, but if there is a buy-in from large companies to the small-holder level, it’s possible.”

For the next few months and even years, fires and haze may dominate headlines about Indonesia. But if the government and environmentalists can keep up the momentum, perhaps soon Foaed’s statement won’t be seen as premature celebration, but rather as conscious foreshadowing.