Figure 1: Clearing on the margins of an unregistered plantation in the Siak Kecil area of Riau Province
When I first saw this image it saddened me. I had already travelled through the region, not precisely this spot at 0° 59′ 54.9996′ N, 101° 53′ 3.0012′ E, but further to the north and west. Travelling by helicopter afforded an excellent view of the numerous forms of natural habitat destruction that is such a feature of Riau Province.
Years earlier, Indonesian friends had insisted that Riau Province was the most corrupt province in the country. Now, this was a big claim and I took it on board as somewhat of an exaggeration but after visiting the place, I’m not so sure. Now back to the main point of this post.
Locating the image on Google Maps.
As a first step in delving deeper into this image I decided to locate it on Google Maps which meant converting the coordinates to the decimal scale 0.998611 N, 101.884167 E. This allowed me to plot the image’s location. There were several images taken from a location further south.
I’ve shaded the camera icons red so that they stand out on the map.
While attempting to locate the site on a map of Riau landholdings, I was fortunate to come across this map.
Figure 2: Land holdings and land use in Riau
I’ve loaded it as full size so readers can examine this map in detail. It has latitude and longitude clearly marked. The area in question is a little hard to discern so I’ve also clipped the relevant section of the map.
Figure 3: Segment of Land holdings and land use map
The cleared area, pictured in Figure 1, is on the border of the Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve, which is also the customary land of the Indigenous Sakai people. It appears to extend into the reserve. Such clearing opens up opportunities for illegal logging inside the reserve and leaves it prone to the danger of wildfire, particularly given the extent of forest debris visible in the image.
Also, note that the cleared area in Figure 1 is on the border of an Unregistered Plantation. Research conducted in 2014, found that occurrences of fire by land cover type, land management systems, landholders, and proximity to roads and canals showed that:
Fred Pearce writing in his book The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth makes the point that “Until the late 1980s Riau was 80 percent jungle. Today the figure is just 30 percent. I’ve never met Fred but I have met the people of Sungai Tohor who face the consequences of a systematic destruction of peatland forest.
The people were fighting back. Our visit led us to participate in a drainage canal blocking exercise part of an attempt to restore the water table in an area of peatland targeted for plantation development.
At the time I met Ridwan, one of many community members working to reintroduce rainforest trees but first some geographical and historical context.
To skip the historical and geographic background and read Ridwan’s story directly, go straight to Sungai Tohor Today, at the end of this post.
Though many of the people living on Riau’s peatlands might identify as Melayu (Malay) on the first enquiry some have ancient origins tracing themselves back to Indigenous Suku (Tribes). Over the centuries they have been variously ruled by competing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay coastal kingdoms. Competition between these kingdoms expanding into the territory now known as Riau heightened in the 7th century BCE. During the colonial era competition for territory was again heightened and has continued with renewed intensity since the late 1970s. The pressure of settlement and competition for land, driven both by formal and informal population movements, has had adverse consequences on the health of the biophysical environment and for the survival of Riau’s remaining Indigenous people.
Indigenous people were closely connected with the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri rivers and their tributaries.
With its rich volcanic soils, Java attracted most of the Dutch colonial interest. Under Dutch control, large areas were devoted to sugar and tobacco cultivation. Later, as industrialisation created a growing global demand for rubber, plantation agriculture became a viable economic activity on the less densely settled island of Sumatra.
Prior to World War II, the Dutch had begun the development of large-scale rubber plantations in eastern Sumatra. In Riau, plantations were smaller since the province’s extensive peatlands were not ideal for rubber cultivation.
A little less than 6% of Sumatra’s rubber was grown in Riau.
Japanese invasion led to dispossession and interment of Dutch plantation owners. At war’s end, the agricultural lands developed by the Dutch were invaded by three-quarters of a million squatters. Foremost among these migrants were the Toba-Batak. This was followed by the settlement of migrants from several other parts of the archipelago principally Javanese, Banjar, Bugis and West Sumatran people attracted by the apparent availability of farmland where smallholders could cultivate rubber, cacao, coconut, and rice.
The opening of the Caltex oil well at Rumbai, at Minas and Duri also operated as a pull factor attracting settlers seeking opportunities created by the petroleum industry. In 1958 Caltex built a floating bridge over the Siak River and by 1962 Caltex had built an oil port and company town at the fishing port of Dumai connecting it Duri by road.
Beyond this growing cultural complexity and increasing density of settlement Indigenous people remained pressed into the upper regions of river systems and areas of closed canopy forest in hilly areas and peatlands. These impacts on Indigenous peoples will form the focus of my next blog post.
Settlement of Riau since the 1970s
Government and private companies were the dominant force in plantation development, particularly when synthetic rubbers began to displace natural rubber and plantations gradually converted to oil palm cultivation. Palm oil plantations require greater investment in planting, fertilizing crops, harvesting and oil processing and this favours larger organisations with an ability to raise the necessary capital. Building palm oil mills for extracting oil is a far more capital-intensive activity than rubber tapping, gathering cacao beans or harvesting coconuts.
During Sukarno’s Presidency . “. . . the government resettled transmigrants in Riau . . . for security reasons, due to political tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia. Transmigrants were sent to the border regions that were considered by the central government to be underpopulated, in order to bolster territorial defense in the ‘confrontation’ against Malaysia.” It was not until 1975, during Suharto’s New Order period, that Riau was formally designated as a transmigration area under Presidential Decree no. 29. Only small numbers were involved.
Border regions were invariably peatland areas. This process continued under President Suharto but with an emphasis on development for agriculture, specifically, rice cultivation.
“In Riau, the first transmigration settlement in the tidal swamp area was in Teluk Kiambang, Tempuling sub-district, in the District of Indragiri Hilir, where 150 families (735 persons) were resettled, followed by another 150 families (732 persons) in 1973/74” 
This is peatland and estuarine swamp.
Tirtosudarmo observes that “The government decision to use tidal swamp was partly because the best lands in the upland areas were already under cultivation by local residents. In many areas customary (adat) law gave land management rights to contiguously spaced local units known as marga or clans. In many areas where these rights had been exercised, particularly by shifting cultivators, the problem of alienating sufficient land for transmigration was more serious. Thus, in general, the upland areas of Sumatra presented difficult land rights situations for new settlements.” 
The Suharto government established a rural development program called Nucleus Estates and Smallholders (NES) in 1978. Settlers known as Plasma Settlers were given two-hectare plots for the cultivation of cash crops such as rubber or oil palms. These were inside company plantations, usually government. At first, they were required to devote a further one hectare to food cropping but in 1997 they were extended the right to cultivate oil palm, exclusively.
NES has brought large changes to the rural economy and landscape in Riau as it was here that oil palm cultivation by smallholders has been greatest.
Impact of increasing global demand for vegetable oils
An increasing global demand for vegetable oils led to an expansion of the land under oil palm cultivation in Indonesia. According to the World Bank (WB) Malaysia and Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Kalimantan) account for about 85 percent of global output. Since 2006 Indonesia has been the larger of the two producers.
The WB reports that Some 70 percent (4.2 million ha) of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations are on land that was previously forested; more than 56 percent of the expansion between 1990 and 2005 occurred at the expense of natural forest cover. It also notes that the process of land acquisition for large-scale oil palm development can generate negative impacts on the livelihoods of communities including small farmers and Indigenous Peoples. This is particularly true when land titles are unclear or unrecognized and companies or the government, as a result of inadequate legal protections or poor enforcement, failure to consult adequately with existing customary users or provide appropriate compensation.
A study of the Indonesian palm oil industry carried out as part of a global study under the coordination of the Australian National University, concluded that palm oil developments have had a positive impact on the incomes and living standards of all involved.
Such statements don’t adequately account for environmental costs and other externalities. They must be viewed against the reality of the largescale operations undertaken by plantation companies. These operations have had a serious impact on the natural environment and traditional rural livelihoods. Apart from forest clearing, the most noticeable impact has been smoke haze. The outer islands of Indonesia, particularly Sumatra and Kalimantan, have been greatly affected by the recent haze problems caused by the use of fire in forest clearing. More than 100,000 premature deaths in the region have been attributed to transboundary haze pollution in the El Nino year, 2015. Areas like Pekanbaru in Riau and Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan were seriously affected. Moreover, plantation companies are powerful enough to exploit legal vagaries, pressure various levels of government, particularly regional and local officials and to take community and Indigenous lands. At the same time the number of smallholders is increasing and their economic position, in monetary terms, is improving. So, the situation is complex. Serious tensions and conflicts sometimes arise.
Forest clearing and the development of drainage canals, along with the use of fire for land clearing, are well-documented problems associated with palm oil plantation development on peatlands. Dispossession of Indigenous people is less well documented and will be covered in my next post.
Wood pulp and paper production
Since the 1990s Riau peatlands have also been cleared for plantations of eucalyptus and acacia sources of wood pulp in paper manufacture
Another major impact on peatlands is the development of the wood pulp industry. Two companies, Sinar Mas Group and Royal Golden Eagle Group have dominated this exploitation of Riau’s forests since the mid-1990s.
Sinar Mas is a vertically integrated corporation that owns Asia Pulp & Paper, PT Aria Abadi, Golden Agri Resources, PT SMART, etc. Royal Golden Eagle has Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), Riau Andalan Pulp, PT Asian Agri Agro, etc
Under the New Order regime of President Suharto, forests were declared ‘state forest’. “They were to be deployed in the name of national development, part of the ‘new order’ initially thrust on him by a group of US-trained Indonesian economists known as the ‘Berkeley mafia’. In practice, in his hands, it meant they would be handed out to anyone with the cash and the connections.”
Both companies built pulp mills a mere 40 kilometres apart near the service town of Pangkalan Kerinci. It would be difficult to find any other part of the earth’s surface where there is such a concentrated demand for wood. Sumatra and Indonesia Borneo have experienced the most rapid deforestation in human history. After forested peatlands had been cleared the companies planted out eucalyptus and acacia to maintain production. Where these plantings were on peatland, large area were drained to promote growth
In 2013 APP announced that in future the company would obtain the informed consent of local communities before preparing new plantations, they also announced, a moratorium on all natural forest clearance. This meant that it would no longer accept Natural Forest Wood (NFW) form its suppliers as part of its Forest Conservation Policy (FCP). It qualified this by adding “ensuring our forest clearance moratorium is properly implemented is a very complex task. While we believe we have made considerable progress, there have been some challenges. That’s why we developed a procedure to address any grievance that our stakeholders might raise, in relation to the implementation of the FCP.” It was not until June 2014 that the use of NFW.
Wetlands.org reports that In South Sumatra APP has started operating its OKI pulp mill with $2.5 billion in loans from China’s state-owned banks. The mill’s pulp production capacity is 2.0 million tons/yr. but an OKI director advises APP will increase the mill’s capacity to 2.8 million tons/yr, though its plant can be upgraded to produce 3.2 million tons/yr. At present, it seems there are insufficient plantation acacia and eucalyptus to support the mill and its South Sumatra concessions are at least 59,000 hectares short of the planted areas needed to produce the volumes OKI will consume.
RAPP has a similar history to that of APP and is responsible for large areas of deforestation and peatland drainage.
The story of Sungai Tohor and Sago
Sungai Tohor is a district on the peatland island of Tebing Tinggi which is part of the Meranti Islands Regency. In 1904 it was settled by Malay people and has become an area of sago cultivation. Sago thrives in the wet conditions and benefits from interplanting with forest trees that help to draw moisture closer to the sago palm’s shallow root system. Sago existed in the area before the permanent settling of Sungai Tohor and is not indigenous to the Meranti Islands.
Trade in sago dates back hundreds of years. It is believed to have been introduced by Bugis trading fleets or other ancient seafarers. This is consistent with a report in the Singapore Chronicle, 15 February 1827 titled On the Cultivation of Sago in the East.
Indigenous people such as the Akit and Orang Laut were the first to harvest sago in the region. ‘Siak sago’, as it was called, has been long regarded as the best quality. Siak was a generic term for the Indigenous people of the peatlands who seem to have spoken Austronesian languages that acquired loan words from Malay and became a distinct dialect. Sago was harvested first by these Indigenous people.
Sago cultivation does not leave peatland forest undisturbed but the ecological disruption it causes is small compared with the deforestation that comes with, extensive oil palm plantations or pulpwood extraction followed by development of eucalypt and acacia plantations.
The PT Lestari Unggul Makmur (LUM) concession on Tebing Tinggi island
In May 2007 the Minister of Forestry issued a Pulpwood plantation permit PT Lestari Unggul Makmur (LUM), a company associated with RAPP. The concession was 10,390 hectare total.
In 2009, LUM obtained natural forest clearing permit of 2,832 hectares. Its production target was 262,837 cubic meters. As a first step, according to Eyes of the Forest, Indonesia, LUM cut 10 kilometers of 12 metre wide drainage canals to a depths of 5 metres. These reduced the water table level in its peatland concession. The concession overlapped the Sungai Tohor’s community lands in an area where peat depths ranged from 2 to 4 metres.
Community resistance to PT LUM
The canal project damaged the peatlands forest ecosystem and lowered water levels where sago palms were under cultivation provoking a response from the wider community of Tebing Tinggi. They rejected the LUM pulpwood plantation development insisting that as well as the negative ecological impact of the canals and planned natural forest clearing, the development would destroy the sago industry, cause subsidence and weaken the areas protection from ingress of salt water. They also stressed the negative social impacts for their community as it relied on a local economy based on coconuts, sago and areca palm (Dypsis lutescens).
Indonesian Government Regulation number 26/2008, the peat areas inside the National Protected Area including peat forest with a depth of 3 metres or more in a river catchment or swamp should be protected. The community argued that LUM PT LUM had breached the law.
A strong local campaign began building around the issues of:
the ecological destruction caused by deforestation bringing about flora and fauna extinction;
the potential for declining sago production because of drainage which could also lead to forest fires given peatlands flammability;
the damaging impact of the acacia of pulpwood plantation that would inevitably follow forest clearance not only on the supply of water but also because they acted as a host for beetles that attacked sago and coconut palms; and,
intrusion from seawater that will threaten sago palm plantation.
By 2011 sago production started to decline because canalisation had lowered water table.
Eyes of the Forest strongly supported the community stating, in summary PT Lum should:
1. curtail all plans to clear natural forest and canal drainage in
in its concession since its permit appears to be illegal and will cause social conflict, damage to the local economy, threaten high conservation forest and cause a negative effect on global climate;
2. dismantle all newly established canal infrastructure causing deterioration of the peat ecosystem and increased CO2 emissions; and,
3. leave all concession areas for conservation and limited utilization for boosting community’s economy, by considering that its management is implemented under a fair scheme of mutual benefit for the community.
Resistance to PT LUM’s concession spread rapidly to the 7 other villages of Tebing Tinggi. Community resolve was strengthened when in February 2014, fires broke out on Tebing Tinggi. Dry conditions made fire-fighting difficult.
With the support of WALHI, The Indonesian Forum for Environment, part of the Friends of the Earth International, leaders of Sungai Tohor posted an online petition asking Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to come to Sungai Tohor and see the damage.
The community of Sungai Tohor also began a project to dam the canals cut by PT. LUM aimed at raising water tables in the area.
In June of 2014 PMHaze sent a team to Riau as part of a hotspot investigation project. They visited three areas Mumugo/Rantau Bais; Pelintung; and Sungai Tohor. Reacting to the February fire Sungai Tohor’s village head and WAHLI-Riau attributed the fire to drying of the peat because of canals dug by PT. LUM and PT. National Sago Prima (PT. NSP). PMHaze reported that new canals were still being dug during their site visit observing that on PT. NSP’s concession, which has formerly been a timber concession with canals dug as far back as 1995 canal blocking had been undertaken in 2013 and 2014.
In November 2015, the President Jokowi visited the area and agreed plantation permits had to be reviewed if they were indeed destroying the ecosystem and would have to be terminated. “‘We must not allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm,’ he said.” He went on to highlight the need for:
1. enforcement of the law related to the Compliance Audit findings on 17 corporate transgressors in the peatland of Riau;
2. total protection of the peatland;
3. strengthening and extension of the moratorium on permits; and,
4. acceleration of the implementation of the one map policy that will force a consensus on territorial issues.
Sungai Tohor Today
Since my visit to Sungai Tohor on the PEET Expedition and have kept up contact with Ridwan.
At the time of my visit he explained that apart from canal blocking to rewet the peatlands, he and other members of his community were attempting to plant indigenous forest tres in amongst community sago palms and extending the plantings to areas already damaged by clearing and burning. This is a difficult task. Just before Christmas he explained that his project was in desperate need of funds to buy small pots for seed stock and shade cloth.
I couldn’t help, the small amounts of money I could send him were going to be eaten up by transfer charges, so I decided the best way forward was to present a visual coverage of the work Ridwan and his team are doing in the hope that others might like to help him.
What follows is a collection of both my images and others that Ridwan has sent me.
Kanō, H – Indonesian Exports, Peasant Agriculture and the World Economy, 1850-2000: Economic Structures in a Southeast Asian State. NUS Press. Singapore. 2008
 The Postwar Migration of the Toba-Bataks to East Sumatra. CLARK E. CUNNINGHAM. (Cultural Report Series.) New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1958. xii, 189 pp.
Tirtosudarmo, R – Transmigration and its Centre-Regional Context: The Case of Riau and South Kalimantan Provinces/Indonesia. A thesis submitted for Doctorate of Philosophy, ANU, 1990 pp.190
Koizumi, Yusuke – Migration and Its Impact in Riau Province, Indonesia: An Analysis of Population Census Data and Topographical Maps. Journal of Asian Network for GIS-based Historical Studies Vol. 4 (Dec. 2016) pp. 3-10
 Pearce, F. The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth. Part Four: China’s Back Yard, 15 Sumatra, Indonesia: Pluping the jungle
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.
I wasn’t expecting things to deteriorate quite as quickly as they have today.
Just in case readers aren’t familiar with this Air Quality Index scale, readings are based on several factors but the figure 248 refers to parts per million of particles 2.5 microns in size. These have a capacity to enter the lungs and remain deep inside.
So, where is all this smoke haze coming from today.
First, here is yesterdays wind map showing hotspots in the ASEAN region. There are two in Sumatra.
Here is a map showing palm oil plantations and peat domes in Sumatra.
Without doing a precise mapping exercise to match the active hotspots with peat domes, it’s still obvious that the most likely source of Singapore’s smoke haze pollution right now is a hot spot west south west of Palembang. At the time of writing Palembang is at AQI 54 but this is a PM 10 reading
Thunder, lightning and rain were a blessing through the night. Listening to the gentle tapping of rain drops on the window confirmed I’d been right switching off the airconditioning and air filter last thing. Rain always brings an interlude of clearer atmosphere. This was no exception with the PSI dropping to 87 and the PM2.5 to 95 from peaks of 224 and 274 in the previous 24 hours.
Sitting here in Singapore over the past two weeks I’ve watched as levels of air pollution have risen. In this connected island nation with it’s ultra fast Internet gathering information about the problem is easy. The Haze Information Portal is my first reliable source of data. When the levels of air pollution rise to unhealthy I wear a mask to help filter out the PM2.5 the particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 microns, the ones that can travel deep into the lungs.
The Air Quality Index (AQI)
Anyone living in a city listed in the Air Quality Index website can check their city’s AQI by using this link I’ve set up for South, Singapore. Just click on this link and search for your own city.
The pollution indices and color codes available on this website follow the EPA graduation, as defined by AirNow and explained in wikipedia.
As an experiment I just walked about 300 metres to the Zion Road Hawker Centre without wearing my mask. The entire journey was conducted with PM2.5 at 167, in the red band. I wore a mask on the return journey. Now my nose is itchy, I’m sneezing, I can feel a burning sensation deep inside my nose and the back of my throat. My voice is slightly hoarse. I’m actually in an at risk group and I’m by no means alone.
This is the last time I’ll attempt the experiment.
Source of the haze
After a few days living with the haze, particularly if PM2.5 reaches Hazardous, which it has done, reflecting on the cause of the problem is inevitable. In our case the problem is Indonesia, Sumatra to be precise, although it’s not alone, Kalimantan also has huge problems. Of course none of this is new, it’s been going on for a while. A friend who lived in Singapore back in 1993-94 reports encountering the haze.
This season in 2013 was also bad for haze but arguably the worst to date was the period 1997-98. At that time major forest and peatland fires broke out in South East Asia. Some of the areas plagued by fire were already very familiar to me, notably the Kutai region of eastern Kalimantan. An El Nino induced drought brought the critical conditions necessary for fire to break out in areas that had already been partly cleared of forest cover and contained huge fuel loads. A total of 10 million ha of forest was burnt during that time, primarily in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. The fires burned or damaged over 1.45 million ha of peatlands, about 4% of the total peatland areas in the region. One million hectare of peat swamp forest in Indonesia was damaged in this period (BAPPENAS, 1999). Fires in the area of peat soils were identified as the major contributors (about 60% of particulates) to the smoke and haze which enveloped a major part of the region and contributed to an estimated economic loss of US$9 billion.
Indonesian environments and palm oil plantations
Most people probably think of Indonesia as a land of rice fields and rainforests, and it is, but it’s also a land of monsoon forests, mangroves, nipa palm swamps and swamp forests. It’s in these swamp forests that the source of the problem lies dormant. If they are left undeveloped or developed in sustainable ways the problem usually doesn’t arise, but unfortunately they are falling victim to the rapidly expanding oil palm industry. Indonesia is the world’s largest Crude Palm Oil producer with about 10 million hectares of Palm Oil Plantation, more than 600 Palm Oil Mills, about 120 refineries, and some palm kernel oil mills, oleo chemical companies and biodiesel factories.
Around 70% of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations are in Sumatra and the remaining 30% in Kalimantan. These islands also contain stands of tropical rainforests. Early palm oil plantations were often established in areas where rainforests had been logged for their valuable timber. One notable area was the coastal fringe to the north-east of 3°N 99°E in North Sumatra province then extending south-east into the inland areas of Riau and Jambi provinces.
Mapping the Sumatran palm oil industry
Coastal areas of Sumatra support extensive swamp forests
Acknowledgement: B. Barus, Diar Shiddiq, L.S. Iman, B. H. Trisasongko, Komarsa, G, dan R. Kusumo) Staf Bagian Inderaja dan Informasi Spasial, Departemen Ilmu Tanah dan Sumberdaya Lahan, IPB; Peneliti Pusat Pengkajian Perencanaan dan Pengembangan Wilayah, LPPM, IPB; Presented in National Seminar Sustainable Peat Land Management in the Agricultural Land Resources Agency (ALRA), Bogor, May 4, 2012
Early oil palm plantation development tended to be mostly in well-drained areas with undulating to hilly landforms.
Recent oil palm plantation development is being undertaken in the swamp forests and associated peatlands within the north-eastern coastal areas of Sumatra.
Tropical swamp forests and peatlands in Indonesia
Peatlands cover at least 9% of the Indonesian land surface, the exact area is somewhere between 16.8 and 27.0 million ha. They form in swamp forests. The process of peat land formation is illustrated in the following diagrams.
Peat is dead organic matter accumulated in a wet oxygen depleted environment, it is about 90% water and 10% plant matter. Such a high water content creates what is called a perched water table in the peat dome. Water retained in a peat dome is higher than in surrounding areas.
Deposits can accumulate over 1000s of years and those in South East Asia have been forming since sea levels stabilised after the Pleistocene, at the beginning of the Holocene.
About 70% of tropical peatlands are found in South East Asia. Most occur in coastal or peri-coastal swamp forests or lowland river catchments in areas of Indonesia in Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan) and West Papua, Papua. They play an important role in flood mitigation during wet seasons and maintaining water supply during dry seasons.
Tropical peat domes can be up to 50 km wide occupying entire catchments between adjacent rivers.
Peat deposits are a large and highly concentrated carbon store. Peatlands and organic soils contain 30 percent of the world’s soil carbon but only cover 3 percent of the Earth’s land area.  It is estimated that carbon storage in peatlands is up to 58 kg per cubic metre. Their capacity for carbon sequestration alone makes them a valuable global asset.
Exploiting Sumatra’s peat lands
Given the huge income earning potential of the palm oil industry the clearing of swamp forests is increasing. In Indonesia cleared peatlands under oil palm cultivation are expected to increase to between 6 and 9 million ha by 2020, amounting to about one-third of total peatlands. Such a large intervention will have major environmental consequences.
Subsidence in the coastal and peri-coastal areas where peatlands are drained and burned presents additional problems going into the future. More severe flooding exacerbated by sea level rise could render significant cleared tracts of land peatland unusable.
Finally the search facility in the Food and Agriculture Organisation website will turn up a rich stream of information on the problem and solutions
Why the air pollution and fires are such a problem at the moment
Apart from illegal and unregulated forest burning, three other geographic factors influence the problem, at any time. These factors are climatic and meteorological. Their interaction can intensify or modify the air pollution problem on a given day.
A primary driver is the monsoon
The southern monsoon brings south-west to south-easterly winds to Indonesia and mainland South east Asia
Wind directions between Australia & S E Asia October 1, 2015.
The influence of the monsoon is easily shown in this wind direction chart for Thursday October 1, 2015.
While the Australian continent is still relatively cool, winds are spilling out of Australia as south easterlies. Moving off shore they become easterlies then as they pass over the Equator they are deflected becoming south easterlies as the pass over Sumatra. Now they begin to blow smoke over Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia.
Variations in Weather
The wind direction on a given day will influence the intensity of the haze blowing over Singapore. This is determined by pressure cells.
Synoptic chart of October 1, 2015
Variations in the isobars, particularly the wavy patterns along the Equator further influence local wind direction.
The southern oscillation plays an important role, particularly when the Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos move into an El Nino. Aridity increases both intensifying and prolonging fire regimes.
Areas experience reduced ocean temperatures and evaporation during the El Nino phase.