Keep soil moist, for peat's sake

PROPER MANAGEMENT: Is peat fire uncontrollable? Experts tell Ooi Tee Ching that fire does not spread if the peatland had been compacted and is kept moisturised with canals of water

IN the last two weeks, there had been considerable news on how much Singapore and Malaysia suffered from the haze that emanated from Indonesia due to peat fires there. Does this mean people in the Riau province of Sumatera are not weepy-eyed and choking from the blaze and haze?

Understandably, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono and Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya slammed critics from Singapore and Malaysia who were quick to blame and offer unsolicited advice. 

It is unfortunate that many took to the "I'm more worthy than you" attitude via the media and Internet and claimed global demand for palm oil is fuelling forest fires while the Indonesian government dispatched water bombing planes and helicopters to battle the peat fires.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association had also responded positively when secretary-general Joko Supriyono reportedly said his team prepared 26 fire-fighting units to help put out the flames.

But like the years before, such positive efforts often go unnoticed because the truth is not sexy when pit against damning rumours. Inevitably, those who are more skilful at spreading rumours and attracting media attention continue to influence public perception.

This is seen when the Association of Plantation Investors of Malaysia in Indonesia testified that Malaysian companies are not at fault in clearing land using fire. Indonesia's Kementerian Lingkungan Hidup & Kepolisian and other local authorities, too, confirmed they had visited TH Plantations Bhd's estates there and found no evidence of open burning.

Although these testimonies reflect reality on ground zero, bad news spreads faster than the peat fires. The damage was also just as immediate. 

Share prices of Sime Darby Bhd, TH Plantations and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) on the Bursa Malaysia fell victim to this unfortunate blame game.

When asked to comment on the spate of media reports on peat fires in Sumatera, Incorporated Society of Planters (ISP) chief executive officer Azizan Abdullah said: "Oil palm planters who carry out proper peatland development and water management at their estates should be given a pat on the back for stemming the spread of peat fire. Instead, what we see is a stab in the back. 

"This is very unfortunate. If not for optimal water table management and infield perimeter drains throughout the peat plantations there, the haze could have been worse," he told Business Times on the sidelines of a recent conference organised by ISP in Sibu, Sarawak.

"Do you know that plantation companies invest a lot of money in heavy machinery to clear the land, compact the peat soil and dig up a maze of canals? 

"This is to compress the peat soil and keep it moist so that the oil palms can grow properly and yield to their potential. Incidentally, this process makes the soil less flammable and hinders fire from spreading," he said.

Most of the oil palm plantations in Riau are at a mature stage and as such there is not much room for new plantings there. "So, by logic, allegations of plantation companies carrying out slash and burn jobs at their estates just does not hold water," he said.

He praised Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for having the wisdom to set the record straight with government officials who reacted badly to emotional pressure and unjustifiably subjected plantation companies to media prosecution. 

When asked to comment on satellite pictures showing many hotspots across Sumatera as indicative of fiery blaze within the plantation companies' land bank, Azizan replied, "we must take note that in Indonesia, 20 per cent of the land bank is under the plasma scheme, of which smallholders occupy scattered enclaves within the plantations." 

He noted that the fires may have been started by the local communities for their own cash crop cultivation in these enclaves.

"In the last 15 years or so, Malaysian plantation companies, especially Sime Darby Plantation which pioneered the concept, have adopted a zero burning approach and use heavy machinery to clear land and carry out soil compaction. So, why would they behave any differently when they invest in Indonesia?" he asked.

Kuching-based Tropical Peat Research Laboratory director Dr Lulie Melling concurred with Azizan that such misunderstandings continue to recur because the communication of facts and figures on the differences between a well-managed peatland and one that is not, is still very much lacking. 

"There has to be more public awareness on this topic because decision makers need to be able to differentiate facts from mistaken assumptions about peat soil and peat fire," she said when met on the sidelines of the ISP seminar.

In her usual attention-grabbing way of explaining scientific concepts, she said: "Peat soil is actually very sexy. It's always soft and wet. 

"I tell farmers to treat the peatland like their wife. If you love her but leave her high and dry, you would have unwittingly set off a ticking time bomb of contempt. 

"Beneath her calm surface of grassland is a dried up layer of angry debris ... just waiting to ignite into a raging fury when there's a spark of fire."

She reiterated that good peat soil management is the basis for sustainable food production and a preventive measure against the spread of fire. "We need to differentiate between managed and unmanaged peat. If you spot patches of grassland, it is most likely unmanaged peat where the top layer of debris is dry and highly flammable," she said.

So, when a uninformed or poor farmer who cannot afford heavy machinery for land clearing, torches up the grassland, he unsuspectingly sets off a fire that smoulders underground for weeks and months.

In explaining the difference between unmanaged and managed peat, she drew an analogy of comparing the cross-section profiles of a sponge cake and that of the Sarawak layer cake, her favourite dessert.

She pointed to a sponge cake and asked, "Can you see the big holes? This is the profile of unmanaged peat."

She then used a rolling pin and flattened the sponge cake. "When there is considerable soil compaction by heavy machinery, the big holes in the peat become small holes and the top layer of debris become densed like a layer cake. The compaction enhances capillary rise, resulting in higher water-filled pore space in the peat," she said. 

She took two candles and stuck one on the sponge cake and the other on the dense layer cake. "Can you see which one is standing erect?" she asked, tilting her head with a smile.

"I tell this to planters at my workshop sessions ... it pays to be romantic ... it's satisfaction guaranteed for those who spend time on foreplay before they sow their seeds. I always remind planters that peat soil requires a lot of tender, loving caressing," she added.

In her next demonstration, Melling lit a candle and tried to burn the dry sponge cake and the layer cake that is soaked in water. The dry sponge cake caught fire while the moist layer cake remained relatively intact. 

"See ... fire is not likely to spread in peat that had been compacted and is constantly moisturised," she concluded.

Indeed, land compaction and establishment of a canal system is a prerequisite to any oil palm plantings in Sarawak's peatland. Melling noted a lot of effort goes to ensuring water levels in the canal system is at 50cm to 75cm from the surface. This is achieved through a series of stops, weirs and water gates.

One Response to Keep soil moist, for peat's sake

  1. Through humour, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it --- Bill Cosby

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