Kuala Lumpur. With a propensity to devour everything in their path and spiral quickly out of control, leaving behind swathes of scorched earth, forest fires are considered a hazard in most parts of the world.
In Indonesia, however, fires are the preferred method for clearing large areas of land for massive plantations of commercial crops.In the first half of 2013, research studies have already recorded 8,343 forest fires, a higher number than in preceding years.
While some blazes occurred naturally, igniting in the country's vast rainforests that are transformed in the dry summer months into an expanse of kindling, experts say that many fires were created by plantation companies and, to a lesser extent, by local communities, to clear millions of hectares of jungle land needed for oil palm plantations.
According to the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor), oil palm plantations covered 7.8 million hectares in Indonesia in 2011, and produced roughly 23.5 million tonnes of crude palm oil that year.
The cheapest and easiest way to clear enough land to yield these huge quantities of oil is to set fire to acre upon acre of rainforest and let the wind and the flames do the work. This method is also efficient in reducing the acidity of peat soil.
Peat soil is a soggy organic matter that acts as anathema to palm trees. This explains why about two-thirds of forest fires in Indonesia occur on peat lands.
Unfortunately, peat soil becomes extremely toxic at high temperatures, emitting greenhouse gases and creating haze and smog. Peat fires can burn on for weeks, even months, endangering wildlife and human communities far from the site of the actual fire.
For years, palm oil-producing companies in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for 85 percent of the world's palm oil production every year, have come under fire from activists and scientists who say the "forest fire method" poses serious environmental and health risks for the entire region.
While most of these fires originate in Sumatra, changes in wind direction mean that smoke travels to nearby countries.
Last month, for instance, the international community pilloried Indonesia for fires that choked parts of neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
The haze that enveloped the latter was so bad that the government in Kuala Lumpur declared a state of emergency in parts of the country where air pollution index readings reached a critical 750 on June 23, well above the "hazardous" level of 300.
Malaysian citizens were advised to stay indoors, while Singaporean authorities cancelled outdoor summer activities as panicked residents emptied stores of their supply of protective masks.
The average air pollution index rating in both Malaysia and Singapore now hovers at over 100, a dramatic increase from the preceding decade, which "could contribute to climate change and is seriously detrimental to the health of people in the region," Gurmit Singh, a renowned Malaysian environmentalist, told Inter Press Service (IPS).
Blame has been bandied about, with governments, corporations and even local communities named as culprits, but public censure has failed to prompt concrete action.
Environment ministers representing five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) flew to Malaysia's capital last week in search of a lasting solution to what has become a predictable annual crisis, but the talks concluded on July 17 with no firm agreement on the table.
All that officials from Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand approved was a plan for Indonesia to refer Asean's 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to its parliament by 2014 — hardly a promising solution, since the accord appeared before Indonesia's legislature in 2009 but was not mentioned once during the entire session.
The outcome of the high-level meeting comes as no surprise to T. Jayabalan, a public health consultant and adviser to Friends of the Earth-Malaysia.
"For almost 20 years these governments have adopted a lackadaisical attitude towards resolving the problem [of forest fires]" he told IPS.
"No concrete measures have been taken because any measure imposed will impact the profits of palm oil companies," he added.
A quick look at the stakes involved in palm oil production supports Jayabalan's claim: according to Cifor, crude palm oil brought in $12.4 billion in foreign exchange in 2008, while the government bagged another billion dollars in export taxes alone that same year.
The sector employs around 3.2 million people every year —not something insignificant in a country where 30 million people live below the poverty line.
Earlier this year, the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association unveiled an ambitious plan to grow the sector by 5.4 percent by the year 2020, adding another four million hectares to existing plantations around the country.
With such zealous plans in the pipeline, a solution is urgently needed, "rather than more talk and postponement of key decisions," Jayabalan stressed.
He and other experts believe the first step must entail recognizing the role palm oil companies play in creating fires.
Data published last month by the Washington-based World Research Institute (WRI) shows that the number of fires per hectare, is "three to four times higher within oil palm concession boundaries than outside of them."
The research also suggests that there are significant discrepancies between maps issued by the ministry of forestry and those being used by oil palm companies.
According to WRI, Company Business Land Use Rights license boundaries are generally nested within, and are smaller than, the concession boundaries the government is using. This creates confusion about responsibility for fires found on land thought to be within concessions but outside areas the companies fully control and are directly developing.
With more fires expected in the months between August and October, environmentalists are urging governments to "come to terms with the haze and its root causes because people in the region suffer from the pollutants," Singh said."Various studies have shown that haze pollution leads to an increase in the number of people suffering from upper respiratory tract infections, asthma and rhinitis."
Countries in the region are also being called upon to cooperate in the development and implementation of prevention mechanisms, monitoring and early warning systems, information-sharing networks and other channels for providing mutual assistance.
Unfortunately, these steps have currently been stalled by Indonesia's refusal to ratify the AseanHaze Pollution Agreement.
Inter Press Service