WWF demands firmer commitment on zero-burn policies

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has renewed calls for zero-burn policies to be enacted and enforced.

The call was made following recent satellite hot-spot analysis data, which showed Riau province in Sumatra as the site of more than 88 per cent of the fire hot spots that have seen Singapore and parts of Malaysia blanketed with the worst haze and pollution since 1997.

According to the most current analysis, more than 9,000 fire hot spots were mapped in Sumatra by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites between June 1 and 24, with more than 8,000 in Riau province alone. Nearly 40 per cent overlapped with large-scale pulpwood concessions or oil palm plantations.

WWF-Indonesia has warned that ground-truthing would be required and was underway to better gauge those responsible for setting the fires.

Many are likely linked to the supply of palm oil. WWF-Indonesia released this week a report detailing the supply of oil palm fruit illegally grown inside the iconic Tesso Nilo National Park.

The hot-spot analysis shows the Tesso Nilo forest complex to be a significant source of haze, with 449 hot spots (6 per cent of the overall total for Riau) recorded there.

"With this data, WWF stands ready to help governments and agencies across the region", WWF-Singapore CEO Elaine Tan said in a press statement.

"The fires in Riau are a global issue that affects us all due to the serious carbon emissions they cause," she said.

Fully 88 per cent of hot spots were in peatland, where fires can trigger huge emissions of carbon.

WWF-Indonesia CEO Efransjah added that, "This is a complex issue, but with the right data, the appropriate enforcement and company protection of their lands, we can make a difference".

In Riau province, long a centre of controversy over clearing and plantation establishment for pulp and paper production, the most recent analysis shows 30 per cent of the hot spots overlap with pulpwood concessions, 1,075 of which are linked to Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd (APRIL) and its suppliers, and 1,027 on concessions linked to Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

Some 9 per cent of Riau's hot spots were found to be within well-managed, large-scale oil palm plantations. These areas likely overlap at least in part with the concession boundaries of major palm oil companies, but this has yet to be verified by a coalition of Sumatra NGOs calling itself Eyes on the Forest (EoF).

The devastating scale and impact of the recent fires has prompted WWF to renew the call to fully implement and enforce "Zero Burning", a set of prescriptions that restricts the use of fire for land clearing or the replanting of industrial tree crops. Instead of fire, heavy machines are used to crush, chip, pile or bury plant residues.

Indonesian law prohibits the use of fire to clear land for any agriculture, and this applies to both corporations and small landholders. Also reflecting the regional significance of these fires, Zero Burning is an important part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) Haze Action Plan and the recently signed, legally binding Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution.

WWF said it was calling on the Indonesian government to take control of land allocations for palm oil and strictly enforce the Zero Burning laws that applied to both smallholders and large corporations. Particularly for smallholders, assistance to manage the land without fire should be provided by the government, with the support of corporations and NGOs.

Moreover, WWF called for pulp and palm oil industries to stop the use of fire in their own concessions and to control any fires on their land.

As many as 61 per cent of Riau's hotspots were found outside the pulpwood concessions and oil palm plantations.

Though further field investigations are needed to verify the data, WWF suspects some of the fires are related to non-corporate oil palm plantation development, as "available" land in the province is often used to produce palm oil fruit to sell to large companies, as in the case of Tesso Nilo.

WWF urged palm oil companies to take responsibility for the full supply chain of palm oil and ensure that fruit or processed oil bought from third-party providers was not fueling the haze.