High-res photos of Indonesian hot spots to go online

JAKARTA - Sharper eyes will be trained over Indonesia's forests and plantation land from now till the end of the year in a private sector initiative to zoom in on culprits who illegally clear lands for farming by burning them, sending choking haze into neighbouring countries.

World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based environment non-governmental organisation (NGO), is partnering commercial satellite service provider Digital Globe to use high-resolution satellite imagery to watch over Sumatra and Kalimantan, the two main Indonesian islands often blighted by fiery land clearing methods.

The satellite images will be loaded onto WRI's newly launched Global Forest Watch Commodities website and overlaid with land concession maps it obtained from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The images can be used to plug the weakest link in the fight against illegal burning of land - the availability of credible evidence that could be submitted in court to punish culprits, says Mr Nigel Sizer, global director of WRI's forests programme.

"It will also be useful for efforts to understand why these fires are happening and why there have been so many," he told a recent discussion with the media in Jakarta.

Singapore and the region were blanketed with the worst episode of the haze in 16 years last year, with the Republic's three-hourly Pollutant Standards Index hitting a record 401 on June 21.

Mr Sizer said the satellite images could "show details like a large potted plant on a front porch from hundreds of kilometres up in space". Within hours, sharp photographs of the fires could be obtained, he added.

WRI has obtained 1.6 million ha of concession map areas by RSPO members across five countries, including Indonesia.

For Indonesia, the NGO has maps sourced from the 54 oil palm growers which are members of the RSPO, a non-profit association that promotes sustainable palm oil products.

Separately, ASEAN leaders had last September approved a joint haze-monitoring system - a database that makes use of land concession maps, hot-spot data and satellite images to identify landowners responsible for burning. But Indonesia's Environment Ministry has said maps can only be shared among governments, citing legal obstacles.

Indonesia's presidential working unit is also attempting to put together a single map that reconciles multiple conflicting land-use maps across the archipelago, but some plantation owners have been unwilling to share information.

The Indonesian government has promised over the years to bring culprits to book, but finding the fire-starters and proving their ill-intent in court have been tough.

Since June last year, 27 companies have been accused of burning land illegally but only one, PT Adei, has been charged in court so far.

"Of the eight companies caught last year for burning land, four of them were caught again this March, showing that the companies are not fazed by the threat of legal sanctions and are acting with impunity," said Mr Muslim Rasyid, coordinator of the Riau-based environment NGO Jikalahari.

This article was first published on June 12, 2014.
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