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Riau, Indonesia: ‘Ground Zero’ of Southeast Asia Haze

The deadly haze which swept Singapore and some parts of Malaysia this year was caused by the forest fires in Riau, located west of Indonesia. Naturally, it attracted significant mainstream media attention but there was scant reporting on the situation of Riau citizens who have tremendously suffered and are still suffering from the impact of both the haze and forest fires.

Zul Othman of The New Paper praised Riau firefighters for their heroic efforts to stop the spread of the forest fire:

Politicians can talk and pontificate all they want but, on ground zero in Indonesia’s Riau province, it is the brave and hardy souls who are bearing the brunt of fires that never seem to die.

They are on the front line of the hot spots. And it is a painful, impossible task. Not least of their problems: How to fight fires with no water? How to go on fighting when your lungs are on fire?

The flames were doused, but never completely tamed. Huge patches of scorched peatland were still smouldering, emitting heat and lots of smoke.

Life Story of a Driller visited the site of the ‘smog attack’:

Last night, I stood on the one of grass fire frontier in Bengkalis, Riau (20/06/2013). People called this Smog Attack. Smog means “Smoke+Fog”. In Singapore, it’s just called haze, because it’s not thick enough.

The Center for International Rorestry Research explains why the haze has stayed for so long in the region:

The haze lingers because the fires do too. Fires are in peat around 3–4 m underground. Firefighters have to stick a hose into the peat to douse the fire

Map of Indonesia forest fires from The Center for International Rorestry Research

Map of Indonesia forest fires from The Center for International Rorestry Research

An interactive map was also developed to accurately monitor the spread of haze and forest fires in the country. David Gaveau and Mohammad Agus Salim studied the causes of the haze:

Many of the June 2013 fires are part of the processes of plantation establishment and management. The very short period over which fire incidents peaked, the high proportion of fires occurring on peatlands, typical patterns of plantation management in fire areas….support this hypothesis.

Weather conditions (including wind patterns) exacerbated the haze problem in June 2013 compared with previous fire incidents.

Fidelis E. Satriastanti called the haze affecting Indonesia’s neighbors as ‘transferred pollution’:

…measures such as logging moratorium in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been taken by Indonesia to fight forest fires. But it appears as if these measures have been insufficient and have achieved limited success.

The writer also observed that authorities have been arresting small farmers and not plantation owners:

…they were only arresting small crooks but left out bigger companies who were resorting to the cheapest way of clearing land for palm oil plantations: burning down forests.

I find it quite hard to believe that the farmers could have caused this much damage. First, they rarely own the lands. Second, even if they do own lands, it’s mostly limited to two hectares.

If the president can deliver an apology to the neighboring countries, then he can certainly apologize to his own people for failing to protect this country’s future generations.

A burning forest in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Virna Puspa Setyorini, Copyright @Demotix (6/20/2013)

A burning forest in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Virna Puspa Setyorini, Copyright @Demotix (6/20/2013)

Unspun is quite disappointed with the slow action of Indonesian authorities to decisively address the problem:

In this age of satellite imagery what further investigation is needed to zoom in on the plantations with forest fires and punish them? What fumes is the Forestry Ministry and other Indonesian officials inhaling?

@iamdreamcatcher posted a picture of a burning forest in Riau and blamed irresponsible companies:

some of companies also have concession lands in the two islands; Sumatra and Kalimantan. it happens years ago, so I guess not just Singapore or Malaysia who's tired with the situation, we also have the same feeling for these irresponsible people …

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