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© Luke Evans

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© Luke Evans

Burning peatlands may be the cause of South-east Asia’s haze, but who’s to blame?

Maman, an Indonesian oil palm farmer, revved a motorbike outside his home and told me to hop on. He then scooted down a bumpy dirt road, passing a village grocery and some trucks laden with oil palm fruits. The road ended in an empty field the size of a stadium parking lot. There were a few oil palm trees growing there, but not many. In Riau, an island that is so chock-full of agricultural plantations, all that empty space was a visual anomaly.

In 2013, Maman explained, the field was the site of a 1,000-hectare fire that contributed to a significant haze episode – one that affected air quality in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Maman, 52, and other farmers here contend that the fire, which destroyed a few smallholder oil palm stands, was deliberately started by an Indonesian agribusiness giant that is said to own nearby concession areas – allocated for commercial development as plantations.

“Local farmers would never burn this land,” Maman, who has silver-flecked hair and a creased brow, told me, waving his hand over the vast expanse. “That would be too risky, because our own oil palm trees are growing nearby, and we can’t afford to lose them.” He did not offer any concrete proof, however, that the company was responsible for the blaze. The Jakarta Post, a newspaper in the capital, reported in late September 2014 that the company, PT TKWL, was among several companies under investigation by Indonesia’s Environment Ministry for allegedly starting forest fires. PT TKWL could not reached for comment.

Also unclear was who, exactly, owned the burned land. Maman pulled out some topographical maps that he said showed conflicting claims stretching over 3,500 hectares. In some maps, the burned area was a company concession, but in others, it was a “transmigration area” reserved for Javanese. The company, he said, could be trying to have it both ways by claiming the land but at the same time not taking responsibility for having caused the fire. But ultimately, he wasn’t sure what the company’s or the government’s intentions were – or what their relationship to each other was.

“We’ve done everything we can to figure that out, but we can’t,” Maman said.

Many Riau peatlands are listed in overlapping titles issued by national, provincial or district governments, according to haze experts. Determining rightful ownership could be extremely helpful, these experts say, because it would allow prosecutors to penalise companies or individuals who violate the burning ban. But in practice, few seem to know exactly who owns what in Indonesia’s peatlands.

When smallholder farmers burned peatlands in the past, they typically did so on small, manageable plots, said Maman. Like many of his neighbours, he is from the island of Java and moved here decades ago under the government’s long-running transmigration programme, which helped to develop sparsely populated provinces like Riau.

But because modern oil palm plantations are so massive, Mamam said, fires are now far less controllable than they used to be. “I admit that we used to clear land with fire, too, but not on such a scale,” he told me.

Riko Kurniawan, of the Indonesian environmental group WALHI, lays much of the responsibility for Riau’s fires at the feet of the world’s US$50 billion palm-oil industry. He told me that many local and international companies have continued to burn peatlands illegally across the province, even after the 2009 burning ban. In a handful of cases, arsonists snuck onto a company’s land, he added. But companies typically don’t take the preventative steps of employing security guards or building fire towers on the edges of their concessions.

Peat fires continue to burn in Riau, Kurniawan said, and the government is not in a hurry to change the status quo of corruption and lax enforcement. “Nobody cares about the causes of the problems,” he told me in his office, a converted residential home in Pekanbaru, Riau’s provincial capital.

But Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Centre, a Malaysia-based non-profit, told me it is not fair to blame companies as much as some environmental groups do. Parish, whose group advised on a peatland management strategy for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said the palm-oil industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. In the past, large companies would operate in Indonesia’s peatlands with impunity, he explained. But as a result of improved law enforcement, along with work by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry-led certification initiative, companies have largely stopped their fire-based land clearance.

Even though it still is about US$2,000 cheaper per hectare to clear peatlands by burning, Parish added, doing so is no bargain in the long term. That is because fires typically lower the water level and leave peatlands susceptible to drainage problems. There is also a risk that a controlled burn could spread to a company’s existing plantations. “No company in its right mind wants a situation like that: half the time flooded, or half too dry,” said Parish, whose group receives some funding from the Malaysian government. He said a few stray contractors may still be burning illegally as a way of cutting corners, “but the owners or investors are certainly not condoning it”.

A 2014 study in the journal Scientific Reports offers a coda of sorts to both Parish’s and Kurniawan’s arguments. The study analysed atmospheric emissions in South-east Asia during the severe haze episode of 2013. Of the total 163,336 hectares that burned, mostly peatlands, 48 per cent was owned by the central government’s Ministry of Forestry, the study found. The other 52 per cent was concessions. But 60 per cent of burned areas in those concessions was “also occupied by communities”.

“This presence,” the authors concluded, “makes attribution of fires problematic.”

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