Planters under fire over haze

Are peat fires uncontrollable? Experts tell OOI TEE CHING that smouldering fires can be prevented from spreading underground if the peat soil is compacted and kept moisturised in trenches filled with water.

For the past month, there has been a steady stream of news on millions of people in Southeast Asia suffering from the haze in Indonesia due to the peat fires there. 

There have also been criticisms of Indonesia's governance despite tireless efforts by its authorities to dispatch water bombing planes and cloud seeding to beat the peat fires. The ongoing El Nino phenomenon is exacerbating the problem, creating scorching conditions that fan the smouldering flames.

More than 5,000 personnel, including the military and police, have been working round the clock to get residents access to medical help. Aircrafts continue to water bomb hot spots and "cloud seed" the skies to induce rain.

Air quality index readings have been as high as 1,992 in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan -- anything over 200 is unhealthy -- while numbers are fluctuating between unhealthy and very unhealthy in Singapore and Malaysia, depending on wind conditions.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared a state of emergency in Riau province, one of the worst affected areas. Yesterday, he went down to the ground with emergency workers deployed to help fight the fires in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan, before heading to Sumatra, where he also inspected ground conditions and fire-fighting efforts in Jambi. 

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association or Gabungan Pengusaha Kelapa Sawit Indonesia (Gapki), too, had been responding positively as its member companies are mobilising 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 allegations. Inevitably, those who are more skilful at spreading rumours and attracting media attention continue to influence public perception.

"Members of Gapki have been conscientiously implementing good agricultural practices. We are committed to a zero burning policy. This means no slash-and-burn to clear up land for new plantings or re-plantings," Gapki chairman Joko Supriyono reportedly told Antara News earlier this week.

Indeed, people living in the estate are also suffering and in need of medical  attention from the ongoing haze. Slash and burn assumptions thrown at estate owners do not make sense. 

"Why would companies, that have invested trillions of rupiahs, want to risk having their permits revoked just because they want to save the cost of land clearing?" Gapki's Joko questioned.

In an interview with Business Times in Kuala Lumpur, Incorporated Society of Planters chairman Daud Amatzin concurred that misunderstandings and wrongful blaming 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. 

When asked to comment on the spate of media reports on peat fires in Sumatera and Kalimantan, Daud replied "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."

"Oil palm planters who carry out proper peatland development and water management at their estates should be given a pat on the back for preventing the spread of peat fire. Instead, what we see is a stab in the back of planters. Such false allegations are sinful," Daud said. 

"Do you know that professional planters practising modern agriculture invest a lot of money in heavy machinery to clear the land, compact the peat soil and dig up a maze of trenches? 

"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 retards fire from spreading underground," he said.

Most of the oil palm estates in Riau are matured and bearing fruits. "So, why would planters want to set fire and destroy their oil palms?" asked Daud, adding the maze of trenches filled with water at peat area, which are transportation routes in the estates is doubling up as fire barriers, too.

When asked to comment on satellite pictures showing many hotspots across Sumatera and Kalimantan as indicative of fiery blaze within plantation concessions, Daud 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 estates." 

He noted that one must not discount the possibility that fire-causing haze could have been started by the local communities for shifting cultivation of cash crops in these enclaves.

Peatland is highly flammable in drought season, if not properly managed. Many cash-crop farmers, who cannot afford heavy machinery for land clearing, may have been unknowingly torching up peatland and set off fires which smoulder underground for weeks and months.

Daud explained that fires spread underground very easily when peat soil is dry and spongy in the forest and shifting cultivation area. On the other hand, peat that had been compressed by heavy machinery and moisturised in water-filled trenches actually prevent spread of smouldering underground fire.

"When peat fires occur, it does not recognise geographical boundaries. The fact that environmental activists and politicians are quick to blame planters without any evidence of where and how the fire originated shows these allegations are not factual," Daud said.

"As investigations on peat fires ensue, I would like to think the Indonesian authorities will uphold logical reasoning and evidence that can be verified. I would like to think justice based on integrity shall prevail over wrongful blame that could be heavily laden with ulterior motives," he added.

Underground water viable solution

PETALING JAYA: Indonesia could map out underground water sources below peat areas and before the drought season, they can pump up water via tube wells to moisten the soil and prevent the spread of fire. 

This is a more sustained solution than the current reactive measures of water-bombing and cloud seeding for rain, said a veteran soil scientist who has close to 50 years of experience in surveying peat areas in Malaysia and Indonesia. 

“When there is accidental peat fire, firefighters can quickly pump up underground water from aquifers and channel it via trenches to the affected area,” said Param Agricultural Soil Surveys (M) Sdn Bhd managing director Dr S. Paramananthan. 

“During the drought season, the unmanaged spongy peat becomes combustible and flammable. Fighting fire is challenging because it spreads and smoulders underground.” 

He likens the profile of unmanaged peat to the cross-section of a sponge cake. In contrast, at oil palm estates, the top layer of peat soil is dense because it would have been compressed by heavy machinery. 

“When there is soil compaction by heavy machinery, the top soil layer becomes dense. This causes water from the bottom of the peat to seep up and moisten the top soil. By doing so, oil palm planters make peat soil at their estates less flammable,” Param said.  

“I know of a few proactive plantation companies which have drilled tube wells and tapped into aquifers below. Before the drought season, they would pump up water from below to moisten the top layer of the peat soil.” 

Param noted that underground water from the tube wells tapping into aquifers deep below can be channelled to irrigate crops during drought season.  

He cautioned that if underground water was to be used as a drinking source by village folks, it would need to be treated to international drinking water standards as stipulated by Indonesian health authorities.