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Zero chance of haze like last year in region, says Indonesian official

SINGAPORE — There is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s episode — where air quality hit hazardous levels and forced the closure of schools in Singapore and in the region — the head of an Indonesian agency recently set up to restore degraded peatland has boldly promised.

Zero chance of haze like last year in region, says Indonesian official

The haze in Singapore in September 2015. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — There is “zero chance” that any haze this year will be as severe as last year’s episode — where air quality hit hazardous levels and forced the closure of schools in Singapore and in the region — the head of an Indonesian agency recently set up to restore degraded peatland has boldly promised.

Acknowledging that fire prevention had not been a focus previously, Mr Nazir Foead, who was making his first overseas speech since taking the reins at the Peatland Restoration Agency, said “we are not in the denial stage anymore, we’re in the stage of correcting the mistakes of the past”.

“There will be hotspots, I cannot deny,” he added. “There will be fires, but the scale of the fires that create haze that choke the Indonesian public and our neighbours will dramatically be less.”

Mr Nazir, a former environmental activist, was addressing an audience of agroforestry and business players and non-governmental organisation representatives at the 3rd Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank on Friday (April 15). 

Asked if his prediction of less severe haze was too bold, Mr Nazir said things are very different this time round. Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday issued a moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations, and had vowed in January to sack local military and police chiefs for uncontrolled fires in their provinces, for example.

“I cannot emphasise how seriously now Indonesia is preparing actions, programmes, changing policies to prevent fires from happening,” he said, at the event held at the Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore.

The scale of the disaster last year, which affected tens of millions of people and cost Indonesia up to 475 trillion rupiah and Singapore about S$700 million, shocked the Indonesian government and sparked determination to not allow history to repeat, he added.

The haze episode in Singapore was protracted last year, lasting from September to November. The Pollutant Standards Index levels breached 2,000 in Central Kalimantan and Indonesians fled their homes for other cities, while in Singapore, the PSI crept to hazardous levels (above 300), causing schools to close on Sept 25. 

The Peatland Restoration Agency was formed in January, with Mr Widodo setting the target to restore 2 million hectares of peatland in seven provinces. The agency has mapped out 2.26 million hectares of dry or canalised peatland that has been burnt frequently in recent years. Of this area, 360,000 hectares is conservation land. The remainder are in cultivation areas — three-quarters are concession areas awarded to companies and one-quarter is community land.

Of 2.6 million hectares that was burnt last year in Indonesia, nearly 1 million was peatland.

Mr Nazir’s agency aims to re-wet the peatland — carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained — and provide alternative livelihoods to communities by identifying crops such as sago palm that grow well in wet conditions.

Peatland restoration in Riau province’s Meranti Islands was launched a few days ago, and Mr Nazir said peatland maps of four districts will be available in about three months.

His “dream” is to make the information publicly available. Asked about legal concerns previously cited, that have prevented Indonesia from publicly disclosing the concession maps of companies, Mr Nazir said it is something government institutions need to dicuss internally. “What I see (is), there is no national secret in providing the information of the concessions (to the public),” he said. Instead, companies and land managers would know they are being watched and be motivated to do right.

“When companies do good, communities and smallholders, the government has to think how to give incentives to do better, and let the public also see what is happening on the ground. That can only happen if we expose the maps,” he told reporters.

His agency has its work cut out, working with 12 ministers and seven governors and ensuring quality dams are built to raise the water table, among other tasks. But Mr Nazir reckoned the toughest challenge will be getting companies that have not adopted sustainability measures on board. “There might be corporations that might think (it’s) not my problem, it’s the community that burns the land.”

After mapping out the 1.9 million hectares of peatland in cultivated areas at a suitable scale, his agency will engage companies on restoration plans. Pulp companies commonly grow acacia on rather dry land but Mr Nazir said switching to species that grow well on wet peatland would be iyestdeal.

Singapore can play a role in the financing of alternative crop cultivation and serve as a market for products, he said.

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