July 20 Strong peat land protection only way to keep haze away

In this photograph taken on June 29, 2013 Indonesian workers from a palm oil concession company extinguish forest fire in Kampar district, Riau province on Sumatra island.

SINGAPORE - The Asean haze summit is a world away for those who are still recovering from last month's devastating forest fires and haze.

Take Mr Laskar Harianja, 30, a single father with three children (11, eight, and seven) in Rokan Hilir district in Sumatra.

More than many, he has experienced the brunt of the forest fires that not only engulfed the region with record-breaking air pollution, but also burned away thousands of hectares of land and turned people's lives upside down.

Greenpeace went into the field two weeks ago, believing that the haze wave was affecting those in Sumatra as dramatically as it was Indonesia's neighbours such as Singapore. But what we actually witnessed was far more tragic.

Mr Laskar's wife died in 2009, and he has not remarried. To feed his family, he was relying on a 1ha pineapple farm behind his house. The arrangement allows him to work while looking after his kids. He spent about 10 million rupiah (S$1,200) on the seeds and the maintenance.

When the fruit was ready for harvesting - which would have been early next year - he was hoping to make about 20 million rupiah. With this income, he had promised his young children a bicycle as a special gift. But the children will be waiting for a while longer.

The forest fires destroyed his farm, turning it to dust. His story is one among many. Another family we spoke to said their grandparents died while trying to fight the flames that were creeping onto their lands.

In Dumai, we saw children who were being treated in local hospitals having breathed in air thick with acrid smoke.

Haze in Singapore & Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, The Star, AFP, Reuters)

These stories tell the human face of the forest fires that have gripped the island of Sumatra.

But since the worst has passed, governments, companies, communities and NGOs have all played the blame game, attempting to pin this environmental disaster on someone, or something.

Greenpeace was among the first to release analysis confirming that the majority of the fires were on peat lands - carbon rich, moist and making up around 0.01 per cent of the earth's surface.

A natural, undisturbed peat forest is a swamp that is resilient to fires. But when the land is cleared, and the peat drained to make way for plantations for crops such as oil palm, it becomes fire-prone. A fire, no matter who started it, sets this rich material ablaze.

It sizzles and smoulders deep below the earth, billowing up whenever a gust of wind feeds it with oxygen.

As long as carbon-rich peat lands are drained for the relentless expansion of oil palm plantations, the conditions for next year's fire crisis will remain.

These fires are a reminder of the need for strong forest and peat land protection, not only because these are much more resilient to fires, but also because it is the degradation of peat that has pushed Indonesia into the ranks of the world's biggest carbon emitters.

Greenpeace demands stronger forest protection, including the implementation of a full ban on peat land development on existing concessions, and the enforcement of laws prohibiting fire clearing.

There is one aspect to this annual story we cannot ignore: The companies clearing and draining peat are laying the foundations for these fires. These companies sell palm oil tainted with forest destruction to the global markets through traders like Singapore-based Wilmar International.

Wilmar has declared that it will exclude palm oil from companies involved in the fires. But this statement is only meaningful if the company ensures that it will no longer buy or trade with any company that is involved in peat drainage.

Corporations must be brought to account for their role in the forest fires. Simply pointing to no-burning policies and distancing themselves through their complicated third-party relationships with suppliers is not enough. We know that the conditions that led to this disaster did not happen overnight. It is the result of decades of forest clearance.

This is why Greenpeace demands that companies and governments step up, take responsibility, and commit to zero deforestation and full peat land protection.

Asean will need to come up with more than words. People across the region demand action now.