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Riau’s Annual Fire and Smoke Calamity

Head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, leads his team in putting ground fires in  Pelalawan, Riau. Source: Local Military Resort Commands Information Centre

October 22, 2019

By Winahyu Dwi Utami

Pekanbaru, RIAU. Assisted by her husband, Syafrianti, 51, arrived at around 10:00 A.M. at the Public Service Center (PSC) of the Riau Province Health Office on Cut Nyak Dien Street in Pekanbaru, on September, 24, 2019. She came complaining of chest pains that she has suffered for the past two days and which have reached levels that really disturbed her daily activities.

The doctor in charge, immediately told her to lay down and proceeded to examine her. With the help of a paramedic, the public servant with the Riau Province Food Resilience Office, was then hooked to an oxygen supply. After having rested for about 15 minutes, Syafrianti said the pain in her chest had begun to subside. “Because I could no longer stand the pain, I asked my husband to bring me here,” said Syafrianti, who has an office not far from the PSC.

“The window in my office is broken so smoke can easily enter into our work room. The smoke in Pekanbaru has recently gotten worst. The thing is, I do not have a history of asthma, heart or lung diseases,” she added.

[Caption: Syafrianti lays on a bed, hooked to an oxygen supply, at the Public Service Center (PSC) of the Riau Province Health Office in Pekanbaru. Source: Winahyu Dwi Utami]

The thick smoke in Riau is also causing problems for Yayuk. Her six-year-old daughter Syaqira had complained of a headache when she came out of arrived her school. The first grader at a private school in Pekanbaru is usually a cheerful child, but when her mother came to pick her up, she looked somber.

“In the evening, I took Syaqira to the health clinic not far from home. According to the doctor, my child had a head ache because of the lack of oxygen supply to her brain. This could be because of the smoke-filled air,” said Yayuk.

“Thank God, schools have been temporarily closed down since September 11, 2019. While there is no school, I do not allow my children to go out of the house,” she added.

On September 10, 2019, state-run schools and a number of private ones were officially temporarily closed down by the local authority until the air conditions had improved. Among the regions where this policy was applied were Pekanbaru and Dumai city. Some private schools which had air conditioning had kept open but made it obligatory for their students to wear face masks.

The worsening air pollution, however, which had reached unhealthy levels, led to the closing of all schools on September 11, 2019. The schools have remained closed for almost two weeks because of the smoke from the forest and ground fires.

Syafrianti and Syaqira were just a few of the thousands of people suffering from the smoke that has blanketed Riau province. The smoke has not only harmed health but also disrupted education and even the people’s economy.

Smoke-related ailments

The Riau Province Health Office has recorded at least five ailments caused by the smoke haze. They were identified as Respiratory Track Ailments, Pneumonia, Asthma, Eye and skin irritations. The highest number of sufferers had respiratory track ailments.

As of September 2019, the Riau Province Health Office had registered 324,772 visits of patients suffering from respiratory track ailments there. The data were gathered from health polyclinics and hospitals across Riau. Compared to 2015 when forest and ground fires were massive, there were less sufferers of this ailment this year. For the same period in 2019, there were 451,822 sufferers registered.

Herewith are data on the number of respiratory track ailments from 2015 up and including September 2019:

“The lower number of sufferers could be because people are now much more aware of the impacts of smoke and have been able to anticipate them. Besides that, respiratory track ailments are not only caused by the smoke. However, when the air is polluted by smoke, those people who are vulnerable would easily fall to respiratory track ailments,” Head of the Riau Province Health Office, Mimi Yuliani Nazir, said.

Smoke contains a number of gases and chemical particles that irritate breathing such as Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Carbon monoxide (CO) Formaldehyde, Acrolein, Benzene, Nitrogen Oxide (NOX) and Ozone ()3). These can trigger irritations in young infants, the elderlies and those already suffering from lung diseases.

To provide health services to those affected by the smoke in Riau, the provincial health office opened a number of coordinating posts and evacuations shelters to accommodate those fleeing the impact of the smoke. There were 14 such coordinating post in Pekanbaru which remained open from early in the day until 9:00 P.M. every day.

“They are not only in Pekanbaru city, but in the regions, such health coordination posts and evacuation shelters have been set up. Since the Governor declared the Emergency status for air pollution beginning in September 23 up until September 30 ,2019, the evacuation shelters have remained open for 23 hours,” she said.

2019 has become the worst year for the smoke haze in Riau after 2015. The air pollution index for the region had reached dangerous levels. PM10 concentrations reached 748.628 ugram/m3 on September 22,2019, at 9:44 P.M., or far over the safe ceiling for PM10 which stood at 150 ugram/m3.

“Because the air pollution index had reached dangerous levels, the Riau Governor declared the air pollution emergency status on September 23-3-, 2019,” said the head of the Provincial Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), Edwar Sanger.

On September 22, 2019, at 5:00 P.M., the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Office (BMKG) observed the presence of 112 hotspots across Riau, with a confidence level of 50 percent. For the whole of Sumatra there were a total of 973 hotspots, most of them, 465, in South Sumatra while 286 others were in Jambi.

At 7:00 A.M. Western Indonesia Time on the next day, September 23, 2019, BMKG said that visibility in Pekanbaru city was limited to around 500 meters. Worse conditions could be found in Rengat Town, and the districts of Indragiri Hulu and Pelalawan which saw visibility at a mere 300 meters.

At 6:00 P.M. later on the same day the Terra/Aqua Satellite detected a total of 1,591 hotspots in Sumatra, 256 of them in Riau, with a confidence level of 50 percent.  This number is still lower than that in Jambi, at 505 hotspots and in South Sumatra with 675 hotspots. At a confidence level of 70 percent, a total of 172 hotspots were detected in Riau.

The thickness of the smoke in Riau was also caused by the wind which went across the province, blowing from Jambi and South Sumatra provinces.  At midday, the conditions relatively improved because of light rains that fell on a number of areas in Riau at around 2:00 P.M.

Efforts to create artificial rain were conducted by the Air Task Force and the Agency for Technology Research and Development, as well as through the performing of rain-asking prayers by all elements of the society in Riau.

“The rain that fall was because of a natural as well as man-made process,” said a staffer at the analytical section of the Pekanbaru BKMG station.

The dryer than usual dry season this year, compared to the previous year, was attributed to the El Nino Phenomenon. El Nino is a phenomenon that takes place when sea level temperature in the central to eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean warms up. The impact could be felt by a number of regions in Indonesia.

“From January up until September 2019, BMKG registered the number of hotspots in Riau at 3,064 spots with a confidence level of 50 percent. This is far greater than in the previous month in the same year, that was at 1,897 spots,” Head of the Pekanbaru BMKG station, Sukisno, said in mid-September.

The number was much higher compared to September 2018, 2017 and 2016.  In 2018 the number of hotspots was at 245 spots, 48 spots in 2017 and 59 in 2016.

Regarding the burned area, the Riau Province Disaster Mitigation Agency recorded 9,120.5 hectares of land burnt during the January 1, 2019 Th- October 6, 2019 period. Most of the fires were in peat land.


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The fire-affected lands were in open access areas, land that are managed by the people, in company concession and in conservation areas. Riau has already declared a forest and land fires emergency status on February 19, 2019 and it is expected to end on October 31, 2019.

The burned areas were not only in mineral soil but also in peatland. The Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) registered the peatland surface that have been burnt in the January-September period at 49,266 hectares. Following is the date from BRG:

Source: Peat Restoration Agency.

According to Didy Wuryanto who heads the Planning and Budgeting Bureau of the BRG, there were much more peat land areas that got burned because the areas of peatland that have not yet been comprehensively worked on was still much wider than the mineral soil area. Peatland that are not yet exploited but have already been drained in preparation for planting, were mostly neglected so that they could easily catch fire.

“The usage (of peatland) that is not done immediately but await a drying process in the dry period, results in the land to easily catch fire,” Didy said.

“If dry peat is burnt, it would be even more difficult to extinguish compared to fires in mineral soil. Even if covered with water, burning peat will continue to emit smoke,” he added.

Secretary General of the Riau Network of Peat Societies (JMGR), Isnadi Esman , deemed that the current forest and ground fires in peat areas are the result of an accumulation of bad peat management by the government, through the issuance of policies and regulations that do not favor the peat ecosystem and its people. “Concession rights, be that for industrial timber estate (HTI) , the rights of exploitation (HGU), mines and oil and gas, are the main roots of the drying up of the peatland so that they can easily catch fire,” he said.


Law enforcement

On October 8, 2019, the Forest and Ground Fire Law Enforcement Task Force of the Riau Police named two people as suspects in the case of forest and ground fires by corporations. The first one was a director of PT SSS with his initial being ESHL and the other an executive of PT SSS identified as Operational Manager AOH.

“The suspect AOH has been detained at the Riau Police special crime detective directorate,” said Riau Police Spokesman, Senior Commissioner Sunarto during a press conference at the Riau Police headquarters on October 8 2019.

The police questioned 23 witnesses from the corporation, 13 from the public, and 11 experts before declaring them as suspects. The burned area is estimated at being around 155.2 hectares in Kuala Panduk village in the Teluk Meranti sub-district of Pelalawan district.

“The company was negligent and did not provide the facilities, did not have adequate funds, SOP and personnel to fight forest and ground fires. Fire-fighting efforts at Block I number 43 failed and the fire thus spread to other blocks/ The fire on February 23, 2019 could only be finally extinguished on March 10, 2019,” Adjunct Senior Commissioner Andri Sudarmaji who heads the Riau Police Directorate for Special Crimes, said.

The suspects face the charge of having violated Article 98, point 1, of Law number 32 of 2009 on the Protection and Management of the Environment.  The charge carries between three years and up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to Rp10 billion.

“There were indications of intentionality, as the land that caught fire was a vacant plot. And the burned area had already been delineated with open channels. The land clearly is part of the work plan of PT SSS. Not far from that location there is a security post and a stock of oil palm seedling ready for plantation. The company did not abide with the Environmental Impact Analysis document, the Environmental Management Plan and Environmental Monitoring Plan. Based on the investigation, there were practically no fire-fighting done,” Andri explained.

The Riau Police law enforcement unit had by 18 October 2019, received a total of 66 police reports, had declared 68 people as individual suspects and two others as corporate suspects. “At present, there are 27 cases in the process of questioning, 16 cases in the First Phase, 22 in the Second Phase and one case had already had its file documents approved,” Andri added.

Besides by the Riau Police, law enforcement was also conducted by the Directorate General of Law Enforcement of the Environment and Forestry Ministry.  “The Law Enforcement Unit has already sealed 10 forest and ground fire locations belonging to 10 companies. Those companies are PT SSS, PT SBP, PT SR, PT THIP, PT TKWL, PT RAPP, PT SRL, PT GSM, PT AP, PT TI,” The head of the directorate general, Rasio Ridho Sani said after a coordination meeting on the prevention and handling of forest and forest fires on Saturday (14/9/2019).

When Ekuatorial tried to obtain confirmation from the spokesman of PT SRL which had about 700 hectares of its land affected by fires, no comments were given. PT RAPP which saw about 25 hectares of its land burned also declined comment when reached for confirmation.

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Rasio said that law enforcement against perpetrators of the forest and ground fires can take the form of criminal charges as well as civil charges. “For those companies suspected of involvement in forest and ground fire cases, they can get administrative sanctions such as the freezing of their licenses,” he explained.

A number of companies contacted by ekuatorial.com for confirmation declined to respond.

Riau Police Chief Inspector General Agung Setya Imam Effendi told a press conference at the Riau Police headquarters that the crime of forest and ground fires was not a regular one. There were difficulties to prove these cases.

Professor Bambang Hero Saharjo from the Forestry Faculty of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, said that the difficulties in solving forest and ground fire cases is because the cases numbered a lot. Meanwhile many of the experts needed to solve those cases were not available so that the investigation or questioning process of the cases are hindered

“Besides that, there are not a few sides that are trying to hinder the investigation. They come from institutions that should have been in the frontline such as from the provincial and or district environment offices. Even though it is not all of them, but they should have actually been at the forefront,” said Bambang who often act as an expert witness in cases of forest and ground fires in Riau.ini.

The application so the laws used against the perpetrators was also important. They should use certain laws but usually they use regional regulations that carry prison sanctions of just a few months, so that no deterrent effect is achieved.

“If all authorities empowered with law enforcement could perform their functions, then many cases would be able to be solved,” he said.


Mitigation of forest and ground fires

Forest and ground fires should actually be the responsibility of all sides. This responsibility and the various roles are stipulated in Government Regulation number 4 of 2001.

“Do not hang hopes too high on the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs and the BNPB only. The government at province, district/municipal levels should also be responsible over their territory. How can they conduct fire controls when no adequate funding is made available.  Even if there is, they usually are just to show that there are fund being allotted, but they are not sufficient. Funds should be in a fair amount so that fires are not left to extinguish themselves or allowed to spread and enter the emergency phase which would enable funds to be dropped through the BNPB,” said Bambang commenting on forest fire mitigation efforts in Riau.

Corporate compliance audits in forest and ground fire mitigation also needed to be conducted by the regional governments because the permits were issued by the Governor or the district. There should be no favor when applying sanctions for violations.

The handling of forest and ground fires would only be effective if it involved all stakeholders, not only the armed forces and the police as well as the Manggala Agni. In peat areas, there is a need for efforts to wet the area so that the surface remained relatively humid. The areas should also be continuously monitored because there is no guarantee that land that have been restored would not catch fire again. Integrated patrol activities should be intensified, including in monitoring the level of the peat water.

“Law enforcement must be backed by all sides, including institutions at the district/municipal level where the corporations are located,” Bambang said.

The Riau Women Movement Against Smoke, or G-Prima, held a rally in front of the office of the Governor of Riau on September 23, 2019 to submit a number of demands to the governor that were related to forest and ground fires and the smoke haze.

Source: Winahyu Dwi Utami

As an institution mandated by the president to restore peat ecosystems in Indonesia, the BRG has conducted the wetting of damaged pea land and formerly burned land totaling 670,000 hectares from the targeted 892,248 hectares. This figure was within the BRG restoration target that was part of the state’s responsibility.

“For area inside concessions, BRG only limit itself to conducted a supervision on the concession holders. This function is stipulated in the Presidential Regulation Number 1 of 2016. Up until now, supervision has been conducted in five concession areas in Riau, South Sumatera, South Kalimantan Jambi and West Kalimantan covering an area of 242,260 hectares from the targeted 1,7 million hectares,” said Didy.

The targeted area for restoration of BRG stands at about 2,676,601 Hectares. A total of 1,784,353 hectares of that are in peatland within concessions while the rest, 892,248 Hectares are peat land in conservation areas, in protected forests, in production forest and areas for other usages (APL) that are not managed under concessions.

In line with Government Regulation Number 57 of 2016, restoration of peat within non-concession areas, such as in production forest, protected forest or AOL fall under the responsibility of the regional government. The restoration of peat in conservation areas is the responsibility of the technical executive arm of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs, in this case, the National Park and the Natural Resources Conservancy Agency.

The restoration of damaged peat and former burned areas is done byl the rewetting method or R1. One o the ways are by wetting the dry peat by drilling wells.

The next step, after the peat has been rewetted, is to revegetate it (or R2), so that trees can grow again and restore the condition of the peat. “The process of restoration or recovery needs a long time so that the revegetation phase or R2 has so far only reached the trial test phase,” Didy said.

To allow a quick and wide recovery, the involvement of the people is necessary. BRG will then conduct the R3 method (economic revitalization). Under this method, the people who want to make use of the peat land would not need to drain it, This R3 activity includes planting sago trees that are suitable for peat land, as well as fruits vegetables, as well as introducing fishery and livestock.

“R1, R2 and R3 are the principal activities in restoration that has to be conducted independently by the village people who want that the peat in their area can be made use in a sustainable way. The people in peat areas would then be able to profit from the wet peat that stores waters at least 40 cm from the surface. There are already 262 villages. As a result of cooperation with the BRG, which are now Peat Concerned Villages (DPG),” Didy said.


Restoration efforts far from satisfactory

Criticism came from the Network of Riau Peat Societies (JMGR). The many canals and drilling wells would be useless without a good water management and the areas will continue to suffer from dryness and fires.

“We found that on the field, companies permanently close the water gates leading to the people’s areas during the dry season like we are now. The result is that the concession area continues to be wet while the rest, in settlement areas and other land managed by the people are dry so that the can easily burn. The opposite is that in the rainy season these water gates are opened so that the people are flooded. This is a solution that needs to be concretely settled not always blame people in peatland when forest and ground fires take place,” Isnadi said.

Isnadi said that there needs to be a road map for a long-term solution for the mitigation of forest and ground fires and the efforts must be backed by regulations and all concerned institutions as well as the people. “The Society Concerned with Fires (MPA) that was initiated during the government of Governor Annas Maamun can become effective if really implemented. Periodical MPA patrols would be able to detect the presence of fires early. Fires are easier to extinguish when still small,” Isnadi said.

Riau Police Chief Inspector General Agung Setya Imam Effendi floated the idea of an internet-based application during a seminar on October 15, 2019. The application, to be named Dasboard Lancang Kuning would be assisted by satellite to detect fires. “We will be able to detect which district police is the nearest to the location of the fire, so that we can immediately deploy the nearest personnel to fight the fire,” Agung said. EKUATORIAL.


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