A disaster mitigation agency worker seen in the Ogan Ilir district of South Sumatra in September. (Antara Photo/Nova Wahyudi)

Erik Meijaard: Pragmatism Not Idealism Needed to Address Haze


OCTOBER 05, 2015

To say that the current fires and haze are a hot topic in Southeast Asia is quite an understatement. Even though played down by some, including Indonesia's own vice president, there is widespread recognition that this is a massive problem negatively affecting some 50 million people in the region, sending people to hospital, closing schools, canceling sports events, and locking down airports.

It is much less clear what needs to be done to reduce the problem now and prevent it from happening in the future. Ongoing efforts include direct firefighting and law enforcement. Who to target in these efforts remains under debate, the larger plantations holders, the small plantation holders, or small-holder farmers. One point of contention is whether in addition to plantation-related burning, small-holder burning should be (temporarily) curtailed or not.

In a recent critique on these pages, Timo Duile objects to an earlier publication by me in which I refer to research indicating that most fires originate outside industrial-scale plantations. My conclusion is that if fires primarily originate outside large plantations, then blaming those plantations for the fires is not going to do much to reduce them.

My recommendations were to 1) stop new fires from happening by enforcing laws against burning, wherever they occur; 2) stop the unsustainable development of peatlands where fires create the thickest and most persistent smoke; and 3) implement longer-term policies that reduce unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture and develop practices that require less land for similar yields and no fire.

Duile argues that “shifting cultivation is an integral part of many indigenous cultures, practiced for hundreds of years” and should neither be blamed for Indonesia's haze problem, nor should there be curtailment of such practices.

I am not sure how this argument contributes to reducing the fire and haze problem. It is indeed obvious, as Duile argues, that industrial-scale agricultural development has displaced traditional land-use practices. But much of the present small-holder burning that causes the regional haze has little to do with traditional practices by indigenous communities.

For a start, there is all but no traditional agriculture on peat. Historically, Kalimantan's and Sumatra's peat lands were largely devoid of people, with people mostly living on fertile river levees. No one in their right mind would think of trying to grow crops on peat, or setting fire to these lands. Peat burning by small-or large-holders is not traditional, and because of the major environmental impacts this has, any burning on peat should be entirely prohibited.

Outside peat areas, traditional shifting-cultivation practices have been much diluted by the influx of outsiders and loss of traditional know-how. The actual “shifting cultivation” that Duile refers to really now only exists in remoter parts in villages with access to relatively larger areas of forest land where they can indeed afford to leave areas fallow for several decades to recover.

There are no easy answers to the fire and haze issues, but I prefer pragmatism to idealism to find lasting solutions that address urgent environmental and social issues. This is an exceptionally dry year, requiring exceptional measures.

Some countries prohibit the use of water for lawns or car-washing (curtailing an apparent right) when water supplies run short. Indonesia is in a state of emergency and needs to put out fires and prevent them from happening again at this scale. That means that whoever burns in whatever context should be told to stop doing that, at least until the exceptional climatic situation we are in changes back to normal.

Burning is not a fundamental human right. What is a fundamental human right is a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of people, which to me includes access to clean air.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative.