September 17, 2021

Let’s talk about the haze

5 min read

I MUST say, like most Malaysians, I’m relieved we are enjoying a respite from the haze and smog that engulfed our skies over the past couple of weeks.

Haze is a common occurrence that all South-East Asian countries experience around the second to the third quarter of the year. In Indonesia, the technique of slash-and-burn for land clearing has been the leading cause of haze since 1991.

In 2013, the forest fires in Riau, Indonesia burned more than 3,000 hectares of plantations. In September 1997, in the city of Kuching, East Malaysia, the recorded air pollution index (API) reading was more than 850, which drew visibility to less than 10m.

The emission from Indonesian forest fires releases abundant of airborne particles.

This time around, schools were shut, and many friends rushed to buy air- purifiers. I too suffered due to the haze as I am asthmatic.

As always, the blame has fallen at the feet of the palm oil industry. As I perused many articles shared on social media, the palm oil industry has, once again, been demonised as the cause of the haze.

Also, the detractors of palm oil, especially in Europe, have used the haze crisis as a means to advance its anti-palm oil agenda.

Many Indonesian plantation companies, including several subsidiaries of Malaysian-owned companies, have been blamed for clearing forests via burning it thereby causing this haze crisis.

However, many forget that 60% of Indonesia’s palm oil is actually in the hands of small farmers. Many of them don’t subscribe to good agricultural practices. It is easier and cheaper for them to burn forests rather than clear them sustainably.

In addition, the small farmers’ slash-and-burn also covers cultivation of other crops, especially annual cash crops like padi. In many places, the nomadic small farmers may even resort to initiate burning and then “disappear”, returning eventually to plant their crops when it’s the rainy season at the end of the year.

Burning may also occur if the growers are carrying out replanting or pursuing new planting, but reputable plantation companies which subscribe to zero-burning techniques would not risk their reputation by using slash-and-burn techniques.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (that counts most of the large plantations in Malaysia as its members) will not sit idly by and allow its members to slash and burn forests. Other certifications including ISCC, MSPO and ISPO also advocate zero burning.

Malaysia does not slash and burn its forests.

We are committed to maintaining a 55% forest cover, i.e. 55% of our total land area will be forests. The Minister of Primary Industries also announced a stop to palm oil expansion in September 2018 to ensure no more forests will be cleared for cultivation of palm oil.

Now that being said, is the haze wholly due to forest clearing and slash and burning? I think it’s a bit more complicated that some let on.

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to Dr S. Paramananthan from Param Agricultural Soil Survey. He is a renowned expert in the field of soil surveys and presented a more nuanced view on the haze problem – beyond human activity.

The problem also has to do with our soil, i.e. mainly, peat soil that is prevalent in Borneo.

Dr Param published a voluminous article,”Minimising the Haze” in the Planter Magazine in 2016. He has also written to the various government agencies concerned to share his views on the matter.

He opined that: “Haze results from the burning of organic matter – leaves, branches, twigs, wood etc. which occur on the soil surface. That is when smallholders or farmers prepare their land to plant their rice, vegetables etc. at the end of the dry season, they will slash the vegetation on their land and set fire to it as they do not have any tractors or bulldozers to clear their land.

“Such slash-and-burn method of land clearing will result in haze. How extensive this haze will form depends on the amount of organic matter that remains on the soil surface.”

Further, Dr Param also posits that almost 40% of Indonesia’s agricultural land is on peat soil.

Now, what are peat soils?

According to the Permaculture Research Institute, peat soils are “Peat soils are formed from partially decomposed plant material under anaerobic water-saturated conditions. They are found in peatlands (also called bogs or mires). Peatlands cover about 3% of the earth’s landmass; they are found in the temperate (Northern Europe and America) and tropical regions (South-East Asia, South America, South Africa and the Caribbean).”

Peat soils are great when it is wet and moist but becomes very dangerous when it is arid and dry (as generally happens during the dry seasons).

So during the dry season peat soils are already temperamental, and when it is set on fire for land clearing, massive problems arise. Peat soils are also very combustible, and that is why in Europe peat soils are processed as a fuel source. This part of the story involving haze and fires that are never told.

There are inherent physiological and environmental issues that also compound the forest fires.

Dr Param has also suggested ways in which we can minimise the forest fires and the haze including (1) cloud seedings and water bombings to ensure that peat areas are kept moist during dry spells; (2) compacting the peat soils as peat soil is very porous and when a fire starts it can spread very quickly; (3) collecting the slashed products for biofuel instead of leaving it in the open; and (4) the use of tube wells to tap underground water that is already present as aquifers under most peatlands.

Beyond that, steps also need to be taken to generate degraded peatlands. Dr Param suggests this can be done by blocking all the drains and raising the water table to ensure the peat-swamp remains in its original “swampy” conditions.

What we need is creative and pre-emptive methods in fighting the haze (besides the usual fire-fighting that takes place after the fires are rampant and the sky is filled with smog) that include enforcing the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to its legal limit to ensure Indonesia takes every possible step to stop forest fires – regardless of whether they come about due to human action or naturally.

It also falls upon the shoulders of the Indonesian government to take action against those who slash and burn their lands or forests regardless of their reasons for doing so because of the extensive damage these fires cause to the environment, ecological systems and our health.

But make no mistake about it, human action is the leading cause of these fires.

Beyond enforcement, we need to educate these farmers to create awareness on why they should not resort to slash and burn techniques to clear their lands. Governments and NGOs should invest their time and resources in helping these farmers explore alternative means to clear their lands in a sustainable way.

In doing so, we will save a lot of money, reduce the adverse health impact of the haze and more importantly prevent the detractors of our agro-commodity industry from demonising it further.

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