Slash-and-Burn in Drought Stricken Indonesia, Exporting Pollution

Slash-and-Burn in Drought Stricken Indonesia, Exporting Pollution

Indonesia’s Burning Season. A prolonged dry spell has caused water shortages and failing harvests across Indonesia, forcing the government to put together a relief plan for victims. But farmers in the in the world’s third most populous country are continuing the practice of clearing land by burning, despite local and international efforts to wean them off the traditional slash-and-burn practice. And is also the main cause of the pervasive smoke haze that continues to bring health and environmental impact on neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.


Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja  in Straits Times Indonesia (16 September 2011):

Farmers in the Indonesian province of Jambi are continuing the practice of clearing land by burning forests, setting off fires that have been raging for the past few weeks.

Despite local and international efforts to wean them off the traditional slash-and-burn practice – which is banned – it is the cheapest and easiest way to clear land for farming, and is also the main cause of the haze that recently enveloped parts of Singapore and Malaysia.

When The Straits Times visited the province on Sumatra island yesterday, the strong smell of burning vegetation hung in the air, and some residents could be seen going around with masks.

In Jambi city, the provincial capital, reports of respiratory ailments had almost quadrupled from 127 to 479 in the past two weeks.

But there were no fires to be seen. Intermittent showers in the past two days have helped to put out forest and plantation fires, bringing the count of hot spots in Jambi – which hit 88 last Thursday – to zero yesterday.

A hot spot is a fire covering at least 1ha that can be detected by satellite.

The heavy smoke over the area, however, bore testament to the size of the fires that had been burning here just last week. It was only because of the unseasonal heavy rain, that the province – and the rest of the region – enjoyed a temporary respite from the fires and resulting haze.

Fires in Jambi – 330km south of Singapore – and other Sumatra provinces are blamed for the haze that envelops Singapore and peninsular Malaysia each year.

This year, Jambi was one of the worst provinces hit by fires. Some 1,530ha of oil palm plantations and 420ha of forest area were destroyed in the past few weeks, according to its forestry agency.

Indonesian officials and weather forecasters, however, say the clear skies may not continue. The dry season here could last till early next month, and another dry spell could allow fires to be restarted.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency said on its website that winds that have helped to blow away the haze are expected to continue to do so next week, but Singapore could still be affected by haze if there are fires in Sumatra.

Senior government weather forecaster Kurnianingsih, however, sought to ease concerns, telling The Straits Times yesterday: ‘But we will not likely see a haze situation as intense as the one that just passed, because that was a result of an accumulation of hot spot activities that started in early August.’

The burning in Jambi suggests that efforts to wean farmers off clearing land using fire have not taken hold.

Singapore has tried to help through a $1 million collaboration with Jambi officials aiming to mitigate fires by teaching farmers zero-burning practices and training local officials to monitor hot spots.

Singapore now funds four air and weather monitoring stations that help to detect fires quickly. ‘We have been using them and found them quite useful,’ said a local forest protection agency official.

The Indonesian government has also started programs to encourage aqua-culture, which does not require extensive forest clearing. And in the latest effort, Jambi’s provincial government has been distributing equipment to turn unburnt tree logs into ‘arang’, a local version of charcoal that can be sold. ‘But our problem is the funding,’ said the official. ‘Not every farmer gets this.’

But the authorities continue to struggle in their annual battle against the slashing and burning. Enforcing bans, officials say, is difficult because of the huge areas involved. And besides, poor farmers often have few other options when they need to clear land for agriculture. ‘We’re farmers,’ said one Jambi resident. ‘We can’t hire tractors. Only corporations use tractors.’

For many, it’s thus much easier – and cheaper – to just throw a match.

‘It’s a huge challenge because it’s about people’s economy,’ said the senior Jambi forest protection agency official.

Some farmers do try to prevent the fires from spreading. One told The Straits Times that he digs ditches around his land and fills them with water before burning bushes and logs between them.

But this is still very risky, as Mukri Priatna at the Indonesian Environmental Forum pointed out. A sudden and strong wind could spread the fire, he said.

‘And these ditches can sometimes dry up unnoticed and lose their effectiveness as separators,’ he said.

Zubaidah Nazeer on The Straits Times (15 September 2011):

A prolonged dry spell has caused water shortages and failing harvests across Indonesia, forcing the government to put together a 3 trillion rupiah (US$345 million) relief plan for victims.

Long queues have been reported at water points throughout the country, from Sumatra in the west to Lombok in the east. At least six of the 16 main reservoirs in Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi are close to critical status and will dry up if it does not rain by the end of the month, officials say.

Rice harvests have also been threatened and more than 100,000 people are reported to be coping with severe food shortages in Nusa Tenggara region. Residents in some districts have gone to forested areas to dig for yam while children were seen helping their parents catch fish in swamps.

Elsewhere in Indramayu, West Java, villagers have resorted to recycling sewage water to wash their clothes and shower, with some even using it to drain their rice and to drink, said a report on Metro TV.

Mr Saprudin Jepri, the headman of Bogor’s Ciherang Pondok village, said: “It’s not enough for the roughly 1,200 households here. We get people fighting over water for bathing and washing.”

Bringing a piece of good news, Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) says the rainy season has begun in Aceh and North Sumatra, and will spread to other areas by the end of the year.

“Water in some parts of Java has become scarce due to the drought but we do not think it is bad enough to say it is a national emergency,” Mr Edvin Aldrian, director of the Centre for Climate Change and Air Quality at BMKG, told The Straits Times.

The government has moved to deal with the situation.

Coordinating Minister for Economy Hatta Rajasa told reporters that there is 3 trillion rupiah in food contingency funds, and only about 10 per cent has been utilised to cover crop-harvest losses and provide rice to the poor.

The remaining 1.7 trillion rupiah will be used to develop water pump projects.

The crisis has sparked renewed debate on the nation’s water management policies.

Mr Hamong Santoso of the People’s Coalition for the Right to Water says the imbalanced impact of the dry season shows up poor water management programmes.

He said only about 47 per cent of the population had access to clean water and less than half of those had access to piped water in their homes. The rest sourced water from rivers, springs and wells.

Said Mr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency: “This situation needs special attention and urgent efforts. Measures to increase the water supply such as building more water catchment of rainwater and land conservation are needed.”


Leave a Reply