Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oil palm solution to trans-boundary haze in SE Asia?

This July has been a bad month for people subjected to trans-boundary haze from Indonesia. I have had to take antihistamines on the days that I spend outdoors. Otherwise the eyes get itchy, the throat dry, the nose runny and the body feverish. Last night it rained heavily and today I had my first good day in almost a month.

All those negotiations to get Indonesia to ban the burning of forests have taken us nowhere.

If you do not identify the problem, how can you solve it? The problem is that the burning is not by loggers and not by oil palm growers. Timber and oil palm companies are big targets that can be easily stopped. The burning is by hundreds of thousands of rural peasant-farmers who cannot be stopped. What is being burnt is not forest, but secondary growth. The western NGOs play their role in this charade by blaming the loggers and oil palm community, I suspect because such NGOs have other agendas. The Indonesian Government is happy to play along because the reality is beyond their power to control.

In Kalimantan, where many Javanese were settled in large immigrant communities 20-30 years ago, their children have grown up and spread out to claim land of their own. Everywhere except in the Dayak heartland close to the Sabah-Brunei border, the children of the settlers have cleared land for themselves, far in excess of what they can cultivate. To maintain their claim to the land that they have staked out, they burn the vegetation every year when it is dry enough to do so. I am told they hang on to land in the hope that someday they can sell it to an oil palm plantation company. So the annual burning has become a ritual that nobody can figure out how to stop. It is probably the same in Sumatra though I have not been there in the dry season. You have to take a drive through South and East Kalimantan during the dry season to experience the vastness of the scale of burning. It is quite safe to drive because although the fires extend mile after mile after mile, and burn right up to the roadside, the burning vegetation is low. These are not life-threatening fires like those in Australia that race through high forest. The people who start the fires continue to live there surrounded by their fires, and cannot figure out why the rest of the world should worry.

The only thing that can stop the annual burning is when all this annually burnt land (and peat, in the case of coastal areas) is bought up and planted with oil palm. The tropical rain forest is already gone. Let’s start healing the earth.