Fighting for Fresh Air

Forests in all their forms are known to be precious carbon sink. They are the lungs of the earth that inhale carbon dioxide –a greenhouse gas that accelerates atmospheric warming- while exhaling oxygen that is necessary to all life. Peat swamp forests are one of the many forest types that keep large amount of carbon in the ground instead of in the air and they can continue to do so as long as they have an abundance of one thing: water.

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Peat swamp forest naturally flooded with knee-deep water

Peat swamp forests are tropical moist forests where waterlogged soil prevents dead leaves and wood from fully decomposing. Similar to mangrove, peat swamp acts as an exceptional carbon sink due to the unique interaction of decomposing matter with water. Over time, this creates a thick layer of acidic peat- a carbon rich layer of soil up to 20 metres deep. Situated in the equatorial rainforest climate such as Indonesia and Malaysia where rain is abundant, the peat naturally remains waterlogged throughout the year, continuously sequestering carbon.

But the situation is changing because of water. In order to use the peat swamp forest for agricultural and forestry activities, more than half of forest cover in the 27 million hectares of peat swamps in Indonesia has been removed through deforestation. Water is drained for irrigation through more than 4,000 km long channels. Any rainfall received in the once-waterlogged forests either flow out immediately through the channels or evaporate rapidly in the heat. Now these place are very dry at the surface all year round and they are easily set aflame.

The result is not only the loss of huge tracts of carbon sink or the emission of carbon by dry peat. With 12000 hotspots in 2015 across Central Kalimantan alone, thousands have fallen ill and lives lost. Chronic water shortages make firefighting efforts all but impossible with fire spreading underground in invisible but extremely potent spread of heat across hectares of flammable landscape.

Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (WALHI) or Indonesian Forum for Environment is a non-governmental organisation that actively mobilises advocacy efforts to demand a stop in the destruction of peat swamp forest ecosystem. It petitioned the local government against issuing concession for private logging and plantation companies. But the issue evidently cannot be managed in this way alone.

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A variety of agricultural produce are derived from peat swamp areas, not all require the soil to be fully drained such as in rice fields and sago plantation. Palm oil and pulpwood plantations, however, require draining.

Agriculture supports the livelihood of thousands in the forests of Kalimantan. Even if alternative source of livelihood can be offered to them, the demand for agricultural products especially palm oil – the most common produce from these peat swamp areas – is so high internationally that it would take much more than one NGO working with one government to halt this ecosystem degradation.

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Palm oil is used in almost all types of food because it is affordable and produces the most yield of oil per hectare of land

Discouraging companies from draining peat swamps is one important objective of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation that awards palm oil companies with RSPO certification should their agricultural practices be found to be sustainable. This is the closest we have to haze-free palm oil in the market today. But the demand for RSPO certified palm oil is less than half of the current supply that is already as low as 17% of global palm oil supply. Shifting this demand would have to involve much of the food and beverage industry whose behaviour would respond to consumers- that is each one of us as individuals.

Spreading awareness to individuals and writing petitions to companies are efforts that the People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) have engaged in since its conception in 2014. PM.Haze is a movement by a group of ordinary people in Singapore who believe that everyone can help stop the haze. During the 2015 haze in Kalimantan and Sumatra, Singapore tasted the direct impact of forest fire in Indonesia and it became ever more evident that this is not a problem for a country to tackle alone or one which will only lead to the detriment of a few in a small area.

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For this reason, PM.Haze also collaborates with local organisations in Malaysia and Indonesia to re-wet fire-prone area through canal blocking. Volunteers from Singapore are engaged first hand in restoring the ecosystem in the peat swamps in order to maintain the swamp water level and prevent fire during dry season. Each canal being blocked by a handful of volunteers may be negligible compared to the hectares of land burning every year but at least in these areas, carbon emission is reduced effectively. The effort does not cost much and so it can be adopted by locals in other areas easily. But it demands the initiative to reclaim responsibility for our environment and ultimately our own health and lives. Most importantly, it demands partnership.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to comprehend the urgency of this situation when the sky is clear, when we are not experiencing acute respiratory infection as half a million of Indonesians are, when we need not grief the loss of our children inhaling poisonous air or our parents dehydrated at the forefront of the battle against raging forest fire. These are the realities of today unseen to our eyes but funded by our own hands. Water and health are human rights and we cannot stand idle knowing that we are taking these rights away from ourselves and one another.

Relevant links:

Information and photographs are credited to PM.Haze. Visit the website to join the movement in fighting for fresh air.

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