Not act of nature but man-made: NEA chief

Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta Straits Times 21 Jun 13;

THE haze triggered by fires raging across Sumatra is not an act of nature, but man-made, National Environment Agency (NEA) chief executive Andrew Tan said yesterday.

Hence, Indonesia needs to take more decisive action against errant companies, Mr Tan told The Straits Times, echoing remarks he made at a two-hour meeting held here yesterday afternoon between Singapore officials and their Indonesian counterparts.

Singapore, he added, could work together with Indonesia to map its satellite images of hot spots onto land concession maps of affected areas in Sumatra, and track those responsible.

"I urged Indonesia to take more decisive action, because the situation is likely to deteriorate in the next few weeks and at the onset of the dry season if no further efforts are taken," he said.

"We registered that given the weather conditions, the burning actions are man-made and therefore can and should be averted. We pressed them to take our concerns seriously."

The emergency meeting at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry followed telephone calls between foreign and environment ministers from both countries on Tuesday. In addition, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishman is due to travel to Jakarta today.

Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit a record high of 371 at 1pm yesterday, an hour before the Jakarta meeting began.

"On Singapore's part, we conveyed the very serious concerns that Singaporeans have over the deteriorating haze situation... how this was unprecedented and (how) PSI levels deteriorated very quickly," Mr Tan said.

"(We) are now at a stage where air quality is at hazardous levels. So we can't take this lightly."

Singapore also proposed to bring forward a sub-regional ministerial meeting on transboundary haze set for August, he said.

Indonesian officials were asked to share if they have information about Singapore companies involved in illegal burning so that Singapore can act as well.

"We had a frank discussion with host agencies," Mr Tan said.

The Singapore side was updated regarding a ministerial meeting yesterday morning that saw a national task force on haze being set up. Measures agreed on included stepping up firefighting efforts and enforcement against errant firms. Immediate steps included cloud-seeding to induce rain.

The task force, chaired by Coordinating Welfare Minister Agung Laksono, includes the ministers for foreign affairs, the environment and forestry. Mr Agung told reporters that cloud-seeding would take place as soon as it was feasible, starting today. The salt is ready, the planes are in place, he said, but there must be clouds.

He noted that the burning was not always above ground. Some 850ha of land had been ablaze in recent days, and fires in some 650ha had been put out, he said.

The government is investigating which companies are responsible and will take action against those found culpable. "But there must be a process," he said.

Burning 'the cheapest way to clear farm land'
Poor farmers cannot afford machinery and manpower
Joyce Lim And Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja In Dumai (Riau Province)
Straits Times 21 Jun 13;

WHY do people use fire to clear the land when tractors and earth movers can do the job? It is the cheapest way, came the reply from a plantation manager.

"It takes just 10 litres of diesel costing 50,000 rupiah (S$6.40) to flatten 1ha of land," Mr Fadli, who goes by just one name, told The Straits Times.

"In contrast, it would cost more than 15 million rupiah to hire workers and rent excavators to flatten and clear a plot of land that is of the same size," said Mr Fadli, a field manager at a rubber plantation in Pelintung, Riau.

And it would take men and machines one full day to finish the job, he added.

For poor farmers in Indonesia, it is hard economics and not green issues like environment protection that dictates what they do.

This is why they are likely to continue with a practice that has been used for generations, Mr Fadli said. "But we are not like that," he was quick to add.

He insisted his company does not use the slash-and-burn method, but was hard put to explain why there were burnt logs and branches in some parts of the plantation. Also, a worker was using an excavator to flatten land that had obviously been burned.

Mr Fadli declined to reveal the name of the company he works for or the size of the firm.

His boss, who wanted to be known only as Apeng, said it is common for oil palm plantation owners to hire contractors when they want to clear the land.

Some contractors may sub-contract the work. But as sub-contractors are not paid a lot, they tend to choose the cheapest and fastest way to get the job done.

Mr Apeng said the method of clearing the land is often not specified in contracts.

So, when the question of illegal practices arises, the owners are usually absolved of blame. Legally, they have not have broken the law, said Mr Apeng.

Yesterday, The Straits Times team spent 12 hours looking for hot spots and trying to find out the identity of their owners. Many of these plantations are massive, and it takes about two to three hours to get from one to another.

We managed to find three hot spots, but none had signage that would tell us who the owners are.

The firefighters we spoke to also claimed they did not know who owned the land.

Along the way, our team came across many smaller plots of burnt land. At these smaller plantations, we saw that one part of the plantation would be planted with oil palm trees and another part would be burnt. This is what is known as partial burning.

Plantation owners selectively burn parts of their land to clear it for planting new crops.

They would build canals around the plot of land that they intend to burn. After the land is set ablaze, water from the canals is used to put out the fire. The excavators would then move in to flatten the land and remove burnt tree stumps and branches, leaving no trace of the slash-and-burn method that had been used.

EASY OPTION

It takes just 10 litres of diesel costing 50,000 rupiah (S$6.50) to flatten 1ha of land. In contrast, it would cost more than 15 million rupiah to hire workers and rent excavators to flatten and clear a plot of land that is of the same size.

– Mr Fadli, a plantation manager who goes by just one name

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