July 2 For Riau's farmers, livelihood trumps haze

RIAU - All a poor farmer needs is just a match to start a fire.

That fire could spread quickly across forest plantations, especially during the dry season.

Once the land has been cleared, the farmer can start planting crops, which he will later sell to feed himself and his family.

But try telling the farmer not to light up; or tell him to pay $2,000 for excavators to clear the land instead.

Or tell him to find other means to feed his family.

He is, in all likelihood, going to ignore you.

During a recent assignment to Riau - ground zero of the haze which blanketed much of the region - The Sunday Times team met many such farmers.

They are poor, unskilled and rely on farming to feed their families.

These farmers have, for generations, been burning land to clear it for the next planting season.

They live and breathe the haze, year after year.

When I tried to tell them about the hazardous levels of the Pollutant Standards Index, I sounded as alien to them as I looked in my N95 mask.

Many do not think they are doing anything wrong, or that their routine acts have contributed regularly to the thick haze enveloping the region.

Indonesia should accept M'sian help
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: SwitchUp.tv, The Star, AFP, Reuters)
Air quality drops further in Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: SwitchUp.tv, The Star, NASA)
Haze affects Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: SwitchUp.tv, The Star)
Emergency declared in Malaysia as API surpasses 750
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: AFP, Reuters )

Mr Suryanto, head of the Dumai Forestry Department, told The Sunday Times that it is an almost impossible task to try and stop these farmers from burning to clear the land.

As the head of the department, Mr Suryanto acknowledges that he has the authority to issue new regulations or to change existing ones, and empower the forestry police to carry out enforcement.

But it takes more than just changing regulations or stepping up enforcement to stop the burning, he explained. Killing off the haze is as good as killing the livelihoods of these farmers.

"These poor farmers will do anything it takes to protect their livelihoods," Mr Suryanto said.

"When you have nothing, you fight with your life to protect anything and everything that can feed you and your family."

Mr Suryanto even foresees blood being shed if the authorities try to take away the land from the farmers, or chase them away.

"These villagers will unite and fight the police. Even then, the burning will not stop. They will move to another area and start burning again," he said.

The Sunday Times team witnessed such collective kampung attitude when a group of villagers approached our car because the driver refused to pay a jobless villager who helped direct traffic on a road that was partially under construction.

The situation was diffused when the driver offered the man a few rupiah.

Shuttling between the provincial capital of Pekanbaru and hot spots in Dumai and the regencies of Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir in the last two weeks, the team saw plumes of smoke rising from charred plots of lands, every few kilometres we travelled.

Such instances of indiscriminate burning did not happen only in forested areas, but right in the heart of Pekanbaru, and are an indicator of just how commonplace slash-and-burn practices are in Indonesia.

Burning is still the cheapest way to clear land here. It takes just 10 litres of diesel - costing 50,000 rupiah (S$6.40) - to clear 1ha of land.

It goes some way towards explaining why few would move to spend about 15 million rupiah - or close to $2,000 - to hire workers and rent excavators to flatten and clear a plot of land of similar size.

Local farmer Mulia Manurung, 50, said that $2,000 is more than what he earns in a year.

Life is simple for the farmers here, who do not watch television or read the newspapers. So attempts to educate and inform them about the ills of slash-and-burn through the media would be largely ineffective.

Besides, reaching them also poses some challenges for the authorities as 90 per cent of Dumai is forested, and the vast geography makes it difficult to reach these farmers who live deep in the forest, said Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai.

Dumai is a coastal city closest to many of the hot spots in Riau province.

But farmers with smallholdings are just one part of the problem behind the annual outbreak of fires and haze in Indonesia.

Fingers have continued to be pointed at major pulp and palm oil companies which own plantations in Riau, and at least 14 companies are being investigated by the Indonesian authorities.

Most companies refute allegations that they are responsible and claim that they follow strict no-burning policies - and demand that their contractors do the same.

But activists say that when contractors further sub-contract the work to others, including some farmers, burning is often used to clear the land as it is the cheapest and fastest way to get the job done.

Observers, green activists and analysts also charge that corporations or local farmers with deep pockets take advantage of lax law enforcement and continue with the practice of burning to clear land.

The Sunday Times team in Riau spotted at least three such plantations in Dumai - one about 5,000ha in size.

This is despite Mayor Khairul saying that "there are no oil palm plantations in Dumai".

"If there are any," he added, "they are illegal."

Yet the owner of one such illegal plantation disclosed that he has been operating his 5,000ha plantation for the past five years.

A state of emergency was declared in Riau recently by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The initial efforts of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) to put out the fires in Riau province appeared lacklustre, with just three helicopters, a Casa aircraft and one Hercules C-130 used for cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations.

But the efforts, including increased deployment of personnel on the ground and stronger enforcement, picked up pace following the Indonesian leader's apology for the haze.

Given the vastness of the area, and the scale of the problem, it is going to take considerable time and resources before real and effective changes are seen on the ground.

Farmers need to be supported with an alternative to burning, perhaps with subsidies for fertilisers or to buy the equipment they need to clear the land. Similarly, the large plantations need to step up checks and enforcement of practices, including and especially by their contractors.

In the meantime, Singaporeans, like others in the region, should learn to be better prepared when the haze inevitably returns again.