Asian Scientist (Jul. 10, 2013) – Small and large-scale farmers in Riau province, Sumatra, have been blamed for the recent choking smoke smothering Singapore and parts of Malaysia. But scientists in Indonesia have identified a third category of ‘mid-level entrepreneurs’ who buy unregulated access to land for oil palm and clear it by burning, seemingly unrestrained by government.
The fire-haze episode straddling the Strait of Malacca in June 2013 has reignited a decades-long debate about responsibility. In the current debate, finger pointing still alternates between the small- and large-scale agricultural operators.
Before 1998, the blame for starting the fires was put exclusively on smallholders’ ‘shifting cultivation’ techniques, with large-scale plantations and development projects protected from any criticism by the government.
After the Sumatra fires in 1997-98, it became evident that burning was the cheapest option widely used by all farmers, whether on a small or large scale or on peat or mineral soils.
Now, scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre, who have been studying land conversion in Sumatra, have identified a new category of local land investors who may contribute to the haze-causing fires.
According to the scientists, these land investors operate outside the government system, making them potentially more difficult to regulate.
They acquire land under informal rules at village level, effectively sidestepping the government’s land-use system. They then bring in their own labor to clear the land for oil palm, regardless of the land’s formal government status and in the absence of any permits to do so.
In their research, published as a policy brief online, the scientists found that about half of the fire ‘hot spots’ in Riau province are on land with legal permits for large-scale operations (industrial timber, oil palm and logging). The rest occur as part of illegal activities, in areas which have been slated for conservation or non-production.
These findings suggest that policies and policing need to be adjusted to deal with the newly identified ‘mid-level’ group if the annual fires and subsequent haze are to be reduced. Holding plantation companies accountable for the fires within their boundaries would help reduce the problem but not extinguish it.
The report can be found at: Ekadinata et al. (2013) Hotspots In Riau, Haze In Singapore: The June 2013 Event Analyzed.
Source: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr.
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