More than 100 Indonesian firefighters are battling peatland fires set by oil palm plantation developers in Riau province on the island of Sumatra, reports the AFP.
“The smoke comes from fires in peatland areas in Riau province,” forestry ministry official Deni Haryanto told AFP. “Our satellite monitoring shows that the fires in Rokan Hilir of Bengkalis district have been on and off since they started on Monday.”
Smoke from the fires has boosted air pollution to unsafe levels in Malaysia and Singapore.
Riau is viewed by environmentalists as ground-zero for efforts to slow deforestation and destruction of peatlands, activities which account for more than three-quarters of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions. A 2008 study by WWF found that deforestation of nearly 10.5 million acres of tropical forests and peat swamp in Riau since the mid-1980s has generated 3.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Riau continues to be a hotspot for new development of oil palm estates and pulp and paper plantations.
Fires have become nearly an annual occurrence in Sumatra. Typically fires are set for land-clearing purposes and allowed to burn until the onset of the rainy season. In particularly dry years, especially during el Niño events, the fires can burn for months and destroy large areas of forest. In 1982-1983 more than 9.1 million acres (3.7 million ha) burned on the island of Borneo before monsoon rains arrived, while more than 2 million hectares of forest and scrub land burned during the 1997-1998 el Niño event, causing $9.3 billion in losses.
The fallout from the haze is increasingly political — the 2005-2006 fires resulted in heated exchanges between Indonesian and Malaysian government officials. Malaysia and Singapore offered assistance in fighting Indonesian blazes, while simultaneously scolding the country for its lack of progress in controlling the wild fires. Indonesia in turn blamed Malaysian firms for rampant illegal logging in the country, which left its forests more susceptible to conflagrations.