By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As another outbreak of forest fires in Indonesia sends harmful smoke drifting across parts of Southeast Asia, researchers and environmental activists have urged Jakarta to step up efforts to prevent a repeat of the last major haze crisis in 2015.
Emergencies were declared in six Indonesian provinces on Sumatra island and in Kalimantan last week as fires raged, while neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia issued health warnings about the air pollution that is heading their way.
Arie Rompas, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner who is from Kalimantan on Borneo island, said that with no rain since July, peatland fires were intensifying in areas burned in the 2015 disaster.
"Our courts have ordered the government to prevent this and commit more resources to extinguishing fires, and to name and prosecute the plantations where fires occurred in the past," Rompas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Without this, fires will worsen and the situation could be the same as in 2015."
Indonesian farmers burn huge swathes of forest and peatland every year to clear land for agricultural expansion, creating a vast haze that clouds the skies over large parts of the region.
With drought affecting many areas of Indonesia as a mild El Nino weather pattern disrupts rainfall, the worry in vulnerable parts of Southeast Asia is that this year's haze will exceed that caused by the devastating fires in 2015.
Between June and October that year, about 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land burned in Indonesia, mainly on Sumatra and Borneo islands, said a 2016 World Bank report.
A Harvard University study linked the 2015 haze to more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Facing domestic and regional pressure, Indonesia switched its focus from containing fires to preventing them after the 2015 crisis, which cost the country $16 billion and caused more than 500,000 people to suffer respiratory ailments.
President Joko Widodo introduced a series of measures and policies that forestry researchers say have helped reduce the number of fires and intensity of the haze in the last two years.
Widodo, who visited some of the worst-hit provinces in 2015, renewed the previous government's moratorium on new conversion permits for primary forest and peatlands.
Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, said banning the use of forest and peatland for new plantations could reduce fires because cleared land is often burned to prepare it for planting.
In 2018, the government went further, halting the issuance of new permits for oil palm plantations and shifting the focus to higher productivity on existing plantations, said Varkkey, who has researched transboundary haze for more than 15 years.
Earlier this year, Indonesia's environment minister said the government planned to make the forest clearing moratorium, which has been extended since 2011, permanent.
Forestry researchers said Widodo should back this idea and expand its scope to include re-grown forested areas.
Widodo has also vowed to return 12.7 million hectares of land to indigenous people following a historic 2013 court ruling to lift state control of customary forests.
Last year he signed an agrarian reform decree aimed at issuing titles to the landless and raising farm incomes.
Researchers said that plan would help ease poverty, increase communities' sense of ownership over forests, and reduce illegal access to forest areas and banned activities like burning.
Arief Wijaya, forests and climate manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia, a think tank, said support for forest-dependent people to produce and sell products not derived from wood was crucial to help Indonesia manage forests better.
"For forest-rich provinces like Papua, agroforestry, aquaculture and eco-tourism are feasible options to promote non-timber forest products, and boost local economic development," he said.
Other policies introduced since 2015 include educating and training communities and farmers in fire prevention and setting up a Peatland Restoration Agency.
Ancient peaty soil is particularly flammable when dry, often causing fires to spread beyond their intended areas.
"The key to fire and haze prevention in Indonesia centres on the question of how to restore flammable deforested peatlands back to the fire-proof system they once were," said climate scientist David Gaveau.
Given the vast and remote nature of peatland areas, greater local incentives and more funding will be needed for Indonesia to achieve its restoration targets by the end of 2020, he added.
Jakarta has also drafted in the military to combat forest fires when needed, built early warning towers, and organised patrols to monitor burning.
And closer coordination between local governments, villagers and agribusiness companies has helped reduce fire risks.
But last month, Indonesia's Supreme Court ruled that Widodo and his cabinet ministers must still do more to stem the haze problem.
The court ordered the government to name companies that owned land where the 2015 fires broke out, and issue regulations providing guidance on compensation for damage in such cases.
"Open palm oil plantation data is important to show who's accountable for the burned areas, as well as to enforce the law," said Varkkey, who also backs a more regional approach.
Five years ago, Indonesian lawmakers approved a 2002 pact crafted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to tackle haze pollution at the regional level.
Indonesia's participation has since been limited, with Widodo preferring a unilateral approach and refusing to cooperate with Singapore on prosecution under its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, said Varkkey.
"Indonesia should practice good neighbourliness at the regional level by increasingly engaging with ASEAN and Singapore as an additional strategy to address the fires and haze, and not confine efforts to the national level alone," she said.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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