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News 26 Oct 06
Indonesian forest fires may fuel global warming: experts
By Martin Abbugao
SINGAPORE (AFP) - The annual recurrence of carbon-rich haze caused by illegal fires in Indonesia's vast tropical peatlands may help fuel global warming if left unchecked, experts warn.
Saying there are no easy solutions, they called for an international effort to combat the problem, ranging from fire-fighting to prevention. They also said authorities must address the social and economic issues that prompt people to use the cheap but destructive method to clear land for their crops.
Smoggy haze from the fires in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan regions sent air pollution levels in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to unhealthy levels several times this month, in the worst outbreak since the haze that blanketed much of Southeast Asia in 1997-1998.
But beyond causing health problems and denting tourist arrivals, scientists say the gas emitted by the haze could help accelerate global warming.
Global warming is the phenomenon in which an increase in the temperatures of the earth's atmosphere and oceans can lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events including floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and tornados.
Environmental groups, think tanks and academics voiced concern over the haze's impact on global climate change at a recent meeting in Singapore.
There was a sense the haze might continue for years to come and could become worse rather than better, delegates said.
"Some of them felt that climate change is very real and climate change will get into a negative cycle with the fires," said the meeting's chairman, Simon Tay, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
This makes the problem a global issue and should spur international attention and help for Indonesia, Tay said.
Regional environment ministers held an emergency meeting earlier this month to discuss the haze after Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologized to his neighbours for the smog.
Large plantation and logging companies as well as small farmers clearing land for agriculture have been largely blamed for the annual burn-off. Indonesia's government has outlawed land-clearing by fire, but weak enforcement means the ban is largely ignored.
One noticeable trend compared with 1997-1998 is the increasing area of peatlands being cleared by burning, the experts said.
This is bad news because fires in peatlands can cause much more smoke per hectare (acre) than other types of forest fires. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Bogor, Indonesia, said that in 1997 Indonesia's peatland fires accounted for 60 percent of the haze despite having only 20 percent of the total area burnt.
"As more easily accessible upland forests disappear, peatland areas are increasingly harvested by companies and individuals," CIFOR, which is governed by an international board of trustees, said in a statement released during the Singapore meeting.
Daniel Murdiyarso, a CIFOR forestry and environmental management specialist, said that Southeast Asia has 60 percent of the world's tropical peatlands. "Fire and ecological change in these areas could seriously exacerbate regional haze and global greenhouse gas emissions," he said in the statement.
Another CIFOR expert, Una Chokalingham, said that Indonesia's peat swamps contain 21 percent of the earth's land-based carbon. "Unless actions are taken, that carbon could become hot-house gas in 40 years," Chokalingham said.
Scientists blame global warming on carbon dioxide and other gases. Tropical peatlands consist of several layers of dead leaves, plant material and other forest debris that can build up to 20 metres (66 feet) deep. Indonesia and Malaysia have more than 20 million hectares, or 60 percent, of the world's tropical peatlands, according to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) study on the haze problem published in 2001.
Peatland fires can be more difficult than other forest blazes to extinguish because they can "go deep underground and can burn uncontrolled and unseen in the peat deposits for several months," the ADB study said.
The thickest haze in 1997-1998 came from a fire at a one-million-hectare (2.47-million-acre) area of peat which the Indonesian government was draining for a massive rice planting project in Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island.
More than 700 million tonnes (770 million tons) of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere from that burning, the study said.
Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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