Though Indonesia’s President has called for a moratorium on peatland clearing in Indonesia, the process of deforestation and clearing continues. Despite the grave conditions that developed in 2015, fire is still the cheapest means of clearing remnant forest areas once valuable species have been removed.
Following a PM Haze volunteer visit to Riau on 23 February 2017 I began to map the relentless destruction of Riau’s forests.
The red line shows the course of a helicopter flight. The path traverses a variety of landscapes and land use. Additional photos have been added along with shaded areas showing the location of recent fires.
There is much more to say on this issue but to sum it up in one sentence is easy. There has been a failure of the different levels of government in Indonesia to apply the law in the face of pressed from vested interests with a capacity to pay for special consideration.
In theory, the central government has power to influence the oil palm supply chain through law and policies; district-level governments have the most jurisdiction for law enforcement and information-spreading; and village governments are closest to plantation developers, thus having the responsibility of dealing directly with them.
However, good governance for the industry is not as simple as a top-down approach. From consumers to mills, refineries and developers, players in palm oil influence governance processes in different, sometimes unexpected ways.
The first part of my news analysis addresses an excellent article, How to fight the haze three times a day,written for the Straits Times by PM.Haze members Tan Yi Han and Maxine Chen. It is headed by this dramatic helicopter shot.
Mr Tan Yi Han, 32, is a co-founder of People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), a Singapore-based non-profit organisation empowering people to do their part to help solve the regional haze crisis.
He is driven to help people find their passions, and to shape a society in which every individual stands up for what is right. Mr Tan recently obtained a Master of Science in Environmental Management.
Ms Maxine Chen, 24, is a volunteer with PM Haze. She is inspired by writing and its power to drive positive change.
A lawyer by training, her stories on topics including climate change and sustainable consumption have appeared in, among other places, the environmental science and conservation news site Mongabay.
How to fight the haze three times a day
The article How to fight the haze three times a day reminds us that despite Indonesia’s national moratorium on peatland forest clearing, deforestation continues. Protected peatland forests, home to rare and endangered species like the Sumatran elephants and tigers, are still being illegally cleared and burnt to make way for oil palm plantations.
Each dry season fires race across the peatlands producing masses of smoke and leaving behind a scorched earth ready for the planting of neat rows of oil palms. This smoke is a major contributor to global warming but it is also a toxic mix of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, cyanide and formaldehyde. It also carries microscopic particles coated with carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such is its toxicity that in 2015 it forced the closure of all Singapore’s schools and may have caused the early deaths of more than 100,000 people in South-east Asia.
Surveying the problem
Palm oil is present in half the consumer products that we buy (packaged foods and personal care products), it is also the most commonly used cooking oil in Asia.
Last year the survey PM.Haze conducted revealed that 32 out of 33 popular eatery chains in Singapore used cooking oil that contains palm oil.
PM.Haze does not advocate boycotting palm oil but seeks to improve the way palm oil is produced.
The conscious consumer
There is much we can do about this problem. Consumers can adopt several strategies:
reduce unnecessary consumption of palm oil and other vegetable oils. Eat less fried food and choose less oily (and healthier) food instead. Reducing demand for vegetable oil is a key step towards driving down the need to clear more land.
choose palm oil products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This certifies the palm oil is from growers that don’t engage in forest clearing and burning. In Singapore, there are already four brands of cooking oil that are RSPO-certified. Also, Ikea Singapore and the Singapore Zoo use sustainable cooking oil in their food outlets.
tell others about the issue. Most of the eateries PM Haze spoke to were not even aware that they were using palm oil and mentioned terms like “vegetable oil” or “tempura oil” – generic names for palm oil.
Consumers have the power to spur businesses to minimise negative impacts on the health of our people and planet. Let’s demand that businesses act responsibly and go haze-free.
WWF Singapore contacted 27 local retailers, manufacturers and food service brands with a survey to assess their buying and sourcing of palm oil. Only 10 companies responded.
Ayam Brand, which uses only certified sustainable palm oil for its canned food products, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which uses palm oil for cooking in its food and beverage outlets, scored highest in the report.
Those not responding included:
BreadTalk Crystal Jade
Bee Cheng Hiang
Commonwealth Capital brand Soup Spoon, PastaMania and Udders
Since the launch of the campaign, these companies have committed to sustainable palm oil: Bee Cheng Hiang, Commonwealth Capital, Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holding, Paradise Group Holdings, Super Group and Tung Lok.
WWF said the level of “non-discosure and lack of action” among brands in Singapore and Malaysia was higher than the global average.
WWF-Singapore has launched a campaign to get consumers to pressure local brands on their use of palm oil, by sending emails to the companies via https://palmoil.sg.
WWF Singapore observed that unsustainable practices in the palm oil industry are at the root of the transboundary haze and deforestation. It added that, the brands not using sustainable palm oil cited internal factors such as capacity issues and higher costs preventing a switch to sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil options start at less than S$0.01 more per litre.
Some historical narratives can be difficult to follow when they are punctuated by countless footnotes and bibliographic references, or broken by a frequent need to delve into appendices. Ian Burnet frees his work from these impediments. By seamlessly embedding his sources he has produced an almost conversational style. The result is an erudite narrative flow, free of distractions.
Where Australia Collides with Asia chronicles the reflections and discoveries of great minds and adventurous spirits. Both Darwin and Wallace who feature read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial regions of the New Continent. This work introduced the notion of a web of life where no single fact could be considered in isolation. Humboldt created a new genre in writing that eloquently described nature as part of this web of life. Ian’s book is firmly in such a tradition. It is not just a treatise on Alfred Russell Wallace any more than it is a static account of biogeography. He draws on his extensive knowledge of geology and his long engagement with the Indonesian archipelago to reveal a world shaped by tectonic dynamism producing countless variations and contrasts.
Plate movements create areas that are distinct yet often close to one another. Both the Galapagos islands and the Indonesian archipelago display such features. In these places, biogeographic contrasts and transformations are easily observed. We learn that it was the distinct differences in distribution of flora and fauna along the archipelago, abruptly changing between the islands of Bali and Lombok that so intrigued Wallace. Through his research, he established this as a biogeographic boundary between Asia and Australasia.
This work allows us to see the development of Wallace’s research to the point where he summarised all the main principles of Darwin’s ideas on species. When he received Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’, in 1858, Darwin’s surprise was such that he was prompted him to write: ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence, if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract.’
Darwin’s fear of challenging the literalist account of creation in Genesis certainly placed a break on this desire to publish. Wallace’s work pressed him to finally publish in 1859. All of this is and the warm friendship that developed between the two men is well covered, so too is their subsequent collaboration.
The selection of photographs, maps and illustration in this publication not only add graphical power to the work but also display Ian Burnet’s meticulous patient gathering of archival material.
In 2015 I was forced to leave Singapore when the smoke haze, mainly from fires burning on Sumatran peatlands, became so heavy it was unhealthy for me to remain. My exit was easy but the people in Sumatra and Kalimantan, particularly Central Kalimantan, were not so fortunate. All of those in affected areas were living in far higher levels of smoke, without my means to escape.
Understanding the gravity of the problem I began blogging about it. Shortly after this I met Tan Yi Han Co-Founder at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). Yi Han’s clarity, patience and commitment to educate people about this problem was inspiring.
Founded, in 2014, by a group of Singaporeans who believe that everyone can play a part in bringing an end to trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia, PM.Haze aims to empower people with the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a broad social movement to stop the haze and ensure clean air for present and future generations.
Should El Nino take off in 2017 further smoke haze can be expected, despite the moratorium on further peatland plantation development. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology on 23 May, 2017, reported that,”The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains neutral. With the tropical Pacific Ocean warmer than average, and around half the international climate models reaching El Niño levels later in the year, development of El Niño in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño WATCH, meaning there is around a 50% chance—double the normal likelihood—of El Niño developing in 2017.”
Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP)
It was with great interest that I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) 0n Thursday 18 May. Until this point most of what I knew about peat was theoretical. I had played on the margins of a small peatland swamp as a child, walked through a peatland forest in East Kalimantan back in 1988 and recently took a helicopter flight over peatlands in Riau Province with a PM.Haze. This was my first opportunity to have a close-up view.
Our journey took us to the Sungai Tohor area on Tebing Tinggi island, Riau Province.
Tebing Tinggi is a peat island formed by slow accumulation over the past 8000 years, since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. This process has been part of the coastal stabilisation of Riau province.
Beginning in 2007 two companies began cutting canals through the island and draining the peatland for plantations of sago palm and pulpwood for paper production.
This resulted in land, comprising the concessions issued to the companies, being taken from the local community. Now as the peatland dried out, there was not only subsidence of the land but it also became more vulnerable to fire. In 2014, fires burned across the island.
After the fires the community invited Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit the island. Villagers presented him with an alternative peat management plan leading to the revocation of one company’s license. The land was returned to the community for sustainable management. We visited this land which is now being rehydrated through the building of canal blocks. PM.Haze members and those joining PEEP helped build the latest canal block.
Attempting to develop self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of sago palms is a major objective of the village. At present raw sago starch is sent to Malaysia for further processing. Current plans are to explore ways of value adding, perhaps expanding the existing cottage industry that is already producing sago noodles and sago snacks. The community hopes to increase its income by adding value to sago production.
The challenges confronting the people of Tebing Tinggi can be found throughout the peatland of Indonesia. One area where people have also confronted the problem of peatland drainage and wild fires producing toxic levels of smoke, is in the Pelangkaraya area of Central Kalimantan.
At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) of 2016 I also met Emmanuela Shinta, a young Dayak leader. She was instrumental in organising young volunteers to help villagers affected by the smoke, bringing medical services, supplies and health education during the 2015 peatland fires. In May 2016, she and others founded the Ranu Welum Foundation which continues grassroots education on the smoke haze problem
With the help of Emmanuela Shinta I plan to write more on this in the future.
Travelling through East Kalimantan in 1987 the extent of forest clearance was immediately apparent. On the road from Balikpapan to Tenggarong most of the clear-felled areas I passed were tantamount to a tinderbox waiting for a firestorm.
Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan and ten years after this visit, the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997-98 exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25% of the province.
The El Nino of 2015-16
In June the Straits Times reported that peatland fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra that blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union.
The Nature Climate Change 4 notes that El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1, 2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4, 5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3, 7, 8, 9
Recent research on the 2015 fires reported in the Straits Times concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.
The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU’s daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.
The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.
At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Nino.
Research suggests 100,000 premature deaths
Harvard and Columbia University researchers have used air pollution readings to calculate exposure to the toxic smoke haze that drifted across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, last year. Their research suggests 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, arising from this event.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield quotes the report from the Environmental Research Letters journal on September 19 as estimating “. . . that haze in 2015 resulted in 100,300 excess deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,” says the report, which was published in. This was largely the result of exposure the dangerous particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5). The report states:
A combination of El Niño and pIOD conditions in July–October 2015 led to dry conditions that exacerbated agricultural and land clearing fires in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting dense haze persisted across much of Equatorial Asia for weeks, imposing adverse public health impacts on populations in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Using the adjoint of the GEOS-Chem global chemistry model together with health response functions, we estimate ~60 μg m−3 of population-weighted smoke PM2.5 exposure and 100 300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore due to extreme haze in 2015. These values are more than double the 25 μg m−3 of smoke PM2.5 and 37 600 premature deaths that we estimate for a similar haze event in the region in 2006. The approximate doubling of regional smoke exposure in 2015 compared to 2006 is consistent with observations of haze from both OMI AI and MODIS AOD during the two events.
Conditions are becoming worse with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) potentiating factors.
The report notes that, “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from a number of ailments including stroke and respiratory illnesses,” one of the researchers from Harvard University, Dr Shannon Koplitz, told Fairfax Media.
Indonesians were the worst affected with an estimated 91,600 excess deaths.
Last year Indonesia’s National Disaster management Agency (BNPB) acknowledged the severity of the situation reporting that hat 43 million Indonesians were affected by the smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone with 503,874 reported Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).
Topsfield reports Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from BNPB as claiming “There is nothing like that (91,000 premature deaths),” and going on to say, “It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”
It seems Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has misunderstood the data which pointed to premature deaths, rather than deaths in the present period.
Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.
According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons.
The findings bring into sharp focus the importance of ending business-as-usual approaches to land management in Indonesia if the world hopes to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
While the health impacts are an obvious and continuing legacy of the rapacious forest burning there are other grave consequences.
Non-health consequence of forest clearing and burning
The impacts on endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, in particular, are well documented. Tragic as this is, particularly for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang Utan, I’ve concentrated on less well known impacts. The WWF covers the issue of Palm Oil and Biodiversity Loss most thoroughly.
Subsidence of peatlands and their increasing vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding
Flooding in deltas and riparian lowlands is accelerated by the subsidence of peatlands. Subsidence commonly occurs when channels are cut through peat lands as part of the clearing process. Peat dries out begins to release sequestered CO2 and shrinks. This is well documented in the Straits Times article which reminds us that unrestrained forest clearance to develop oil palm and pulpwood plantations leads to land subsidence.
The article observes that:
Millions of hectares of Indonesia’s former forest lands are slowly subsiding and could become flooded wastelands unable to grow food or timber-based products in one of the world’s most populous nations. Combined with rising sea levels, the scale of the problem becomes even more stark because much of the east coast of Sumatra is just a few metres above sea level.
It quotes Wetlands International which claims that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Sumatra’s peatlands have been drained, largely for agriculture.
Vast stretches of peatlands along Sumatra’s east coast that is mere metres about sea level. Mr Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International tells us:
These peatlands will become unproductive so that, over time, almost the entire east coast of Sumatra will consist of unproductive land that will become frequently flooded, adding that this means the livelihoods of the local communities will be jeopardised, and industrial plantations will not be possible any more.
Remediation is unlikely to be an option so the costs associated with this aspect of the palm oil industry are huge and inter-generational.
Siltation of drainage basins, mangroves and coastal waters
Clearing any land in humid environments increases run off and reduces the percolation of water into soils. Run-off velocity in such situations also increases and without the protective forest layer erosion increases, top soil is lost and carried into water courses, streams and rivers. This in turn reduces the efficiency of channel flow, increasing flooding and also leading to increased siltation of estuaries and coastal waters. Such siltation can disturb coastal mangroves and associated fish breeding areas. River transport, coastal fishing and coastal navigation all suffer.
Muhammad Lukman, in research towards his PhD, has identified elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in riparian and coastal sediments. He suggests that his findings could be evidence of the effects of widespread, long-term and intense agricultural burnings along with the many forest/peat swamp fires that have frequently occurred in the past 20 years or so.
Some estimates of cost can be made in terms of the costs of flood mitigation and control measures, losses arising from flooding of agricultural land and settled areas, and the immediate impacts on navigation and fishing
Forced closure of schools and educational institutions;
Such a cyclical problem will cause significant disruption to educational services and the development of human resources, particularly in Indonesia.
Closure of airports and disruption of airline schedules.
During the burning season 2015 flights were frequently cancelled at Sultan Syarif Kasim II (SSK II) airport Pekanbaru, in Riau province with visibility down to between 300 to 600 metres in the area. Elsewhere Kuching International Airport (KIA) in Sarawak, Malaysia was closed on September 10 with visibility down to some 400 metres. In Indonesia, poor visibility due to smoke disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport, Riau. All of these events have direct measurable impacts.
Losses sustained by the tourism industry and other business sectors
Last year Reuters quoted Irvin Seah, DBS economist in Singapore, who said, In 1997, the level of pollution was not this severe, and noting that the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy was relatively smaller back then.
The Reuters report observes that Tourism makes up 6.4 percent of Malaysia’s economy and about 5 to 6 percent of Singapore’s and quotesan ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.
While losses in tourism and ancillary sectors can be calculated there are increased costs to businesses across the board. Developing and implementing disaster relief plans for employees is one area that is immediately obvious, then there are the issues of work days lost owing to respiratory or cardio pulmonary illnesses, disruptions to supply chains and various other schedules of usual business activity. Finally there is the matter of impacts on ventilation and air conditioning filtration systems particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Impact on global warming
This was also broached in the previous post Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The precise impact of any one burning event is difficult to judge, but the immense quantities of carbon stored in the peatlands of Indonesia is cause for concern. One estimate suggests that Indonesia’s 1997 fires released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year.
In China the Mekong River is called the Lancang River. For some years I’ve been concerned about dam construction on the upper part of the Mekong that flows through China.
International Rivers advises that Seven megadams have already been built, and over 20 more are under construction or being planned in Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai. See the Google Map prepared by International Rivers. .
According to International Rivers these existing dams and those under consideration scheme will drastically change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border.
While my concerns have always been related to the resulting water shortages Rubin, Kondolf and Carling remind us that damming rivers also contains and reduces the transmission of sediments through water catchments. This is important because sediments, deposited along water catchments, particularly in the lower reaches where extensive flood plains develop, bring nutrients and the very substances of alluvial soils. Without flooding and deposition of sediments agriculture must rely more on chemical fertilisers.
Most deposition is likely to occur in the Normal and La Nina phases of the ENSO Cycle but if dams prevent this unless they are constructed to allow the passage of sediments. Even if they are, the retention of water will curb natural flows. So this broadens the picture.
There is sufficient online material for any reader to follow this up, but in the April 30 Jakarta Post I noticed some more telling details under the Heading El Niño dries up Asia as its stormy sister La Nina looms in a feed from Satish Cheney from AFP, Temerloh, Malaysia. Satish observes that “Withering drought and sizzling temperatures from El Nino have caused food and water shortages and ravaged farming across Asia”
The 2015-16 El Niño
The 2015-16 El Nino, has been identified by US meteorologists as the strongest since 1997-98. It has left the Mekong River at its lowest level in decades. Satish reports that this is causing food-related unrest in the Philippines, and smothering vast regions in a months-long heat wave often topping 40 degrees Celsius.
El Niño has already severely affected the health and food security of so many families and communities across the world. I am deeply worried about rising acute malnutrition among children under five and the increase in water- and vector-borne diseases. People urgently need food, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene as well as health services, Mr. O’Brien added.
Satish quotes Le Anh Tuan, a professor of climate change at Can Tho University affirming that in the Mekong Delta up to 50% of arable land has been affected by salt-water intrusion that harms crops and can damage farmland. Such events might even become common outside El Niño years if dam construction continues. Associated with this problem more than 500,000 people are short of drinking water, while hotels, schools and hospitals are struggling to maintain clean-water supplies.
Satish goes on to summarise the Asian situation accordingly:
Neighboring Thailand and Cambodia also are suffering, with vast areas short of water and Thai rice output curbed.
In Malaysia, the extreme weather has shrunk reservoirs, dried up agricultural lands, forced water rationing in. some areas, and caused repeated school closures as a health precaution.
In India, about 330 million people are at risk from water shortages and crop damage, the government said recently, and blazing temperatures have been blamed for scores of heatstroke deaths and dead livestock.
Authorities in Palau warned recently the tiny Pacific island nation could completely dry up soon in a “total water outage”.
The OCHA has prepared this interesting infographic on the situation in the Philippines.
Mr. O’Brien emphasises that the World Humanitarian Summit, to be convened by the UN Secretary-General in Istanbul in a month’s time, on 23 and 24 May, provides a critical opportunity for the international community to change the way it manages climatic risks, including future El Niño and La Niña events.