Indonesia’s moratorium on peatland burning is failing. Focusing on Riau province, the region with the most extensive of peatlands, in the period 1 to 8 March, 2018, there have been 99 fire alerts in the following areas:
Kepulauan Riau Kepulauan 29
Between 2 – 3 March seven hotspots were detected in Riau Province, two of them in Meranti Islands, with Kampar, Rokan Hulu, Dumai, Indragiri Hulu and Pelalawan, each one hot spot. Of course, hotspots don’t immediately mean a fire is burning but images from the ground tell the story.
At the time of writing Riau still had forest and peatland fires in several districts. At Lukun Village in the Meranti Islands, 1,224 hectares of peat forest was burned in 16 days.
Estimates are based on drone observations at altitudes of 100 metres and supplements by satellite image analysis.
Mapping Riau’s Fires
The embedded map shows the approximate location of some of the larger fires burning in Riau in during February and the first week of March 2018. I must acknowledge the assistance of Prayoto in sharing much of the data for this map. Working between maps he generated using GloVis, and Google maps that are easier for me to disseminate to educational networks has been challenging if only because GloVis uses complete statements of latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds and Google uses a decimal system. In the end, I abandoned precision for speed. Consequently, some of the fire areas I’ve shown are approximate. The map will be updated as more data comes to hand.
Mongabay highlights problems of fire and finance
Mongabay Indonesia has provided excellent coverage of the present problem, that would seem to indicate a failure of the peatland burning moratorium. It is important to acknowledge that only one fore, in the period covered, was on a RSPO classified oil palm concession. moratorium As of 26 February the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) in Riau, identified 731.5 hectares of fires while the Riau University Research Facility assisting the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) identified 1,224 hectares of forest fires.
According to Haris Gunawan, Deputy 4, at BRG suggests illegal logging activities, canalisation and fuel availability as possible causes of the fire near Lukun village
Presumably, he is suggesting that the logging activities might employ fire for clearing or that illegal loggers were using fire for other purposes. Their presence was clear because of the wood-lined paths, for forest timber extraction, were found along with a forest hut and no doubt other evidence;
The construction of five kilometres of peatland drainage canal, up six metres wide and four meters deep, that cause drying and increased flammability of peatlands during the dry periods
He also observed that BRG has a peat restoration project in Lukun and there was no fire around the project.
Serious fires occur within a few kilometres of the restoration site and have not intervened BRG programs. Haris Gunawan stresses that restoration activities cannot be stand-alone initiatives, that concession holders must also make an effort. This is a sound principle as restoration activities can be undermined if drainage canals continue to be cut in other parts of the same peat dome. In essence, if restoration strategies are to be effective they must be must holistic and involve whole peat dome management
Penyengat Village, Siak, also has an active fire but the remote forest location is making it difficult to extinguish. He estimates, it has burned about 80 hectares in the last 10 days
Firefighting budget trimmed
Adding to the problem the provincial budget for forest firefighting has been cut from Rp29.3 billion to Rp6.6 billion, a 77% reduction. Tarmizi, Head of Research and Advocacy of Budget Transparency Forum (Fitra) Riau, said
“I do not know why this year the budget is so drastically reduced. Even though the authority of forestry management is Provincial Government and no longer in the district. A big responsibility, minimal budget allocations, this is also a problem” he told Mongabay , last weekend.
He explained that the funds are spread across agencies, the Office of Environment and Forestry, the Regional Disaster Management Agency and the Plantation Crops Department. All of which have programs for forest and land fire prevention.
He considered, the budget of fire handling every year at least Rp30 billion, the same as the previous year. The funds, he said, should contain a peat recovery program.
BRG itself allocated Rp49 billion. The amount is outside of the donor agency. Such a budget is for rewetting programs, revegetation and revitalization of living resources in six areas of hydrological unity.
BRG targets 140,000 hectares of peat recovered this year. For five years to 2020, about 900,000 hectares of damaged peatland in Riau will be recovered.
“Peat in Riau 5 million hectares. It hurts 20 years. (Target restoration) 900,000 hectares work five years, let’s see five years later. The areas that are now burning are not in the intervention areas (BRG), “said Haris, in front of a number of agencies in Riau firefighting unit, last week.
Dealing with peatlands holistically
Haris Gunawan explained that BRG, is “not tackling forest fires, but restoring healthy peat to reduce burning vulnerability”. Others have criticised BRG for being less a than effective in applying a holistic approach to peatland restoration. In the Desa Lukun area, for example, the damage to peatland caused by two big companies PT.LUM and PT NSP has resulted in drying and increased flammability. So, fire has been a persistent problem in this area notably in 2014 and now again in 2018. Lukun highlights the problem that dealing with peatland restoration must be comprehensive. Peat domes are part of a system and their restoration requires cooperation between all stakeholders throughout the drainage system, from headwaters to the coastline.
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
Some would argue that the forests of Indonesia were undisturbed until recently but there can never be virgin rainforest once people are present. Beginning as far back
40,000 years ago a process of incremental transformation unfolded along the Indonesian archipelago. This was sustainable change all but invisible yet the very languages and cultures of the archipelago’s forest people were enmeshed and entwined in this process. For the most part, given the low population densities, it left closed canopy forest undisturbed, except for swidden clearings.
Almost 30 years ago, on an extended four-month journey through East Kalimantan and Sumatra, my expectation was an encounter with myriad plants and animals, of complex ecosystems optimising life forces and climaxing in total profusion. How wrong I was. Along East Kalimantan’s Mahakam river deforestation was extensive, rafts of logs floated down the great river, the primary rainforest was seldom seen, except on side trips along tributaries flowing through riparian swamp forest or peatlands.
The same was true in Sumatra except for the Bukit Barisan, reserves and national parks. Valuable timbers had been felled, first replaced by rubber plantations and then oil palms. Only in the Mentawai Islands did I begin to see what I had imagined, elsewhere exploitation of forest resources had already entered a new era though this space was also threatened.
Logging and plantation development, particularly on mineral soils was extensive. In Sumatra after valuable timbers were extracted, large areas were developed as rubber plantations which, after the development of synthetic rubber, were replaced by oil palm plantations. In both Kalimantan and Sumatra peatlands remained as refuges for a time, as places where complex ecosystems were still to be found.
The United Nations FAO reports Indonesia’s forest cover in 1990 as 1,185,450 sq kms, by 2010 this was reduced by 20.3% to 944,320 sq kms.
Just last week I had a text message from my friend Ridwan who lives in Sungai Tohor, a district on the island of Tebingtinggi, in Riau Province. Tebingtinggi is part of the Meranti Island group lying on the western side of the Malacca Strait. His community is engaged in several projects aimed at restoring and establishing sustainable forms of farming. His story will form the next in a series of blog posts.
Riau Province location
Riau is bordered on the west by the Barisan Mountains. Its total area is 8,702,400 hectare.
Four major rivers, the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri Rivers flow into the Malacca Strait forming hill lands that rapidly expand into extensive peatlands.
Figure 2: Riau Province
Originally most of the vegetation cover started out as closed-canopy forest. About 40% of the province, around 3,400,000 hectares, is coastal peatland. The other 60% was equatorial forest established on mineral soils or, along the extreme coastal margins, nipa palm swamp and mangroves.
Riau’s mountain slopes still have forest cover while its hills and peatlands have been extensively cleared for plantations and farm land. The plantations involve oil palm cultivation and areas of industrial forests, where timber companies cultivate eucalypts, acacia and teak for timber and wood pulp. There is also some and farm land.
Riau’s peatland was laid down from the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. On its seaward margins it forms the stabilised Holocene coastline. Here are Indonesia’s deepest peat deposits reaching over 10 meters depth and storing an estimated 16.4 gigatons of carbon, almost 25% of Indonesia’s total deposits. The province has been subjected to rapid and extensive deforestation. From 1990 its total forest area was reduced by 65 per cent and its peat forest cover from 80 per cent in 1990 to about 36 per cent in 2010.
Changes in the management of forests
Until 1998 and the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto regime there was far more control of forests from the national level. Now through changes in law and regulation there has been a greater devolution in authority. Arnold notes in his article Deforestation in Decentralised Indonesia: What’s Law Got to Do with It?’ This was addressed in my earlier post Impacts of and responses to the dense smoke haze from #Indonesia.
With the passing of new regional autonomy and fiscal laws in 2004, regional governors and assemblies received a greater share of power. Regions are now able to exercise extensive autonomy over specific areas of governance, including forestry, provided that their decisions maintain social welfare, public service and regional competitiveness. At a provincial final authority rests with provincial government, districts/municipalities have jurisdiction over everything that is at that level alone. This leaves space for much ambiguity as provincial, regional and district boundaries rarely accord with discrete bio-geographic regions. Many trans-boundary issues arise.
To make matters more complex, provinces can ‘delegate’ authority to districts and/or municipalities, which can I turn delegate authority to villages. Authority over forestry can be so delegated.
Some indication of the land use and tenure of Riau province can be gleaned from this map in Figure 3. This map shows the proposed change in the forest area of Riau province based on the recommendations of an integrated team study. It forms the basis of a revised spatial plan for the province.
The map makes plans for further exploitation of Riaus forests abundantly clear. I will say more about this in subsequent posts.
Further detail on Riau land use can be observed in the transect map I have prepared.
Figure 4: A Riau Province transect
If you intend using any of the images linked to this map, please clarify the image content with me first and also acknowledge this blog on publication.
Legal and regulatory ambiguities afforded opportunities for poor decision making and corruption. The added problem of rural poor wanting a secure income source facilitated low yield unsustainable slash and burn agriculture.
Transforming closed-canopy forest into agriculture land
There is no absolute sequence of steps but there is a frequent pattern in the destruction of closed canopy forest.
Stage 1: Concession Selection Logging
Selective logging over a 20-year period. Logs are can be removed using push carts on portable light rail systems or slid along tree trunks. This opens of the canopy, as shown in Figure 6, lowering humidity and making forest prone to fires in dry periods. If selection cutting is carefully controlled such impacts can be contained but regulation is difficult.
Research conducted in the Mentawai Islands demonstrated the effect of logging just 8% of trees by selective logging led to destruction of 19% of the surrounding forest, 20% of forest was badly damaged with crowns and bark stripped, 7% of trees were seriously broken and 46% remained intact.
Stage 2: More extensive illegal logging
When this takes place it can involve the use of small streams for log transport. Being non-selective this type of extraction can cause irreversible degrading of the forest ecosystem and loss of forest cover as shown in Figure 7.
Stage 3: Slash & Burn Encroachment
Drainage of peat is essential for any agricultural crop (except for sago on the coast). In some cases, small ditches left from previous illegal logging are used to assist peatland drainage. Once an area is dry fire is the cheapest means available for land clearing. On peatland, without rain, fires can smoulder and farmers are neither motivated nor do they have the capability to extinguish fires. When rains don’t come, as in the El Nino year of 2015 fires can spread, raging out of control.
Stage 4: Productive Agriculture
Next the opportunistic patchwork is gradually transformed into organized plantations of palm oil and rubber. Pioneers are bought or pushed out by larger organisations that have acquired concessional access or land titles. In these situations, the focus is on legal compliance but auditing is difficult and breaches of codes continue.
Stage 5:Integrated Land Use
A growing awareness of the unsustainable practices followed in Riau has led to a growing global demand for sustainable products. Haze free palm oil and sustainably produced paper products are in increasing demand. As a response, some palm oil and wood pulp plantation owners have attempted to adopt more sustainable practices and begun to set areas for conservation. In this way, they aim to demonstrate commitment to a business model that extends ‘beyond compliance’. Schemes such as the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood origin certification have begun to provide standards for assessing compliance with sustainable practices.
 Swidden agriculture is sometimes called shifting cultivation and also incorrectly confused with slash-and-burn farming. Swidden is an ancient form of land use that involves the clearing of land for cropping, followed by a period in which the land is left fallow. Swidden cultivators return to the cleared plots for another cycle of cropping after an interval in which soil fertility is able to regenerate as leaf and plant litter restore forest the humus layer.
 Thorburn, C. & Kull, C. – Peatlands and Plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia: Complex Realities for Resource Governance, Rural Development, and Climate Change Mitigation. Centre for Geography and Environmental Science Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Pp. 5
 Whitten, T, Damanik, S J – Ecology of Sumatra. Periplus
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.
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.