Tube wells to mitigate peat fires in Indonesia

JAKARTA: Malaysia recommended the use of tube wells as a long-term measure to help Indonesia mitigate fires on peat soil, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The method, he said, was used widely in Malaysia and could be seen as an alternative method to the water canals as fire barriers proposed by Indonesia as part of the country's effort to curb fires. 

"The tube wells will help to dampen the soil in areas that are in danger of burning. We believe it will also be a faster method compared to the water canals, which will take three years before they are seen to be effective," he said. 

Najib was speaking to reporters after meeting with Indonesia president Joko Widodo at the Indonesian presidential palace in Bogor, as part of a two-day working visit to the republic. 

"This is too long for both countries, because it means we will have to face the threat of haze for another three years," Najib said, adding both countries viewed the haze problem seriously, given its life-threathening effects. 

"The target is to put out the fires in about two weeks. The bigger scale of water-bombing operations means an accelerated process," Indonesia's Jokowi said.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan will summon plantation companies to discuss plans on effective ways to tackle uncontrolled spread of peat fires, which has become a regional life-threatening health hazard.

During his visit to Ogan Komering Ilir, Luhut went deep into the forest to one of the hot spots. He stepped on the dry and brittle peatland that firefighters had doused with water and found smoke coming out from beneath.

"This is a big challenge... the fire is smouldering underground. There is a lot of smoke because the fire is still burning inside. It takes an abundant amount of water to get rid of it completely," Luhut said.

Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to have a new set of standards to produce environmentally sustainable palm oil, while the latter pledged to increase cooperation to help prevent land and forest fires in Indonesia.

The agreement was reached as a joint water-bombing operation by Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia kicked off over the weekend in South Sumatra, which is among the worst- hit provinces. 

It was the largest water-bombing mission ever carried out in an Indonesian province, with seven helicopters and three fixed- wing aircraft tackling the fires raging in two regencies - Ogan Komering Ilir and Musi Banyuasin.

Defending Jokowi, Najib said land clearing in Indonesia was too expensive with many poor workers forced to resort to harmful techniques such as slash-and-burn, leading to uncontrolled underground fires in peat area. 

"The reality is that it is 40 times more expensive to clear land without slash-and-burn. But it's being carried out on large tracts of land and when it's combined with drought brought on by El Nino, it leads to fires which have spread quickly," he said.

On the setting up of the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOP), Najib said it would set global standards and allow the two countries to cooperate on determining global palm oil inventory. 

The CPOP is open for membership to other palm oil producing countries. It would be headquartered in Jakarta, with Indonesia represented by its former coordinating minister for economic affairs Rizal Ramli. Malaysia is represented by Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Douglas Uggah Embas. 

Najib said the two countries had also agreed to establish several green economic zones to develop more downstreaming of palm oil businesses throughout Indonesia.

"We know that 85 per cent of global palm oil output comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. We will create a new global standard to produce sustainable palm oil," Indonesia's Jokowi told reporters at a joint news conference after the meeting.