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South Sumatra’s governor, Alex Noerdin, is adamant there will be a “significant reduction” next year in fires on deforested and peat land in his province.

Those fires have contributed to the haze crisis choking South-East Asia almost annually.

But many experts believe fires in Indonesia are likely to start up again when the rainy season ends in March. They say not enough has been done yet to head off the risks.

Slash-and-burn clearance of land - much of it to plant oil palm, and trees to make pulp and paper - is the main culprit fueling the fires that smoulder deep underground in peat. They have pushed up pollution levels, disrupting daily life from Indonesia to Singapore and Malaysia.

Who is responsible for starting the fires is unclear, although a finger is often pointed at small-scale growers of the palm that produces cheap, edible oil.

Mansuetus Alsy Hanu, national coordinator for Indonesia’s Palm Oil Smallholder Union, said his members are often unfairly blamed, and better mapping of the land would show some fires break out on larger holdings.

Still, he admitted that financial pressure on small growers pushes them towards slash-and-burn clearance.

“Using fires is the cheapest method to prepare a plantation,” he told a recent discussion on the Indonesian fires on the sidelines of the Paris climate change talks. “When you have no money, you go (for) the cheapest way.”

Better access to bank credit and government support for growers could help alleviate the problem, he added.

Noerdin said South Sumatra authorities had launched an investigation into the origin of the fires, and would evaluate all existing licences for cultivation on peatlands in January.

If companies are found to have started fires, there would be sanctions, but that will have to be handled by the courts, he added.

Palm oil “is very important to our province, so we must be careful”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Paris.

This week, the World Bank estimated the haze fires from June to October had caused Indonesia losses of 221 trillion rupiah (around US$16 billion) in damage to agriculture, forestry, transport, trade and tourism, as well as short-term school closures and health impacts.

That is equivalent to 1.9 percent of predicted GDP this year, or more than twice the reconstruction cost after the 2004 tsunami that hit Aceh province.

‘Fire-free’ villages

The Indonesian government is taking steps to curb the outbreak of fires, which experts say were worsened by the El Nino weather phenomenon exacerbating dry conditions this year.

The president has urged a moratorium on draining and developing peatland, while the government is planning to restore degraded peatland and improve the way it manages fires, with a focus on prevention and early warning.

In South Sumatra, the provincial government has launched a scheme for what it calls ‘fire-free’ villages, starting with 75 concentrated in high-risk districts.

Local people will be trained both to extinguish fires and stop them starting, partly through patrols.

They will receive incentives - including farm equipment and fertilisers - that should boost productivity and deter them from slash-and-burn, the governor said.

The province is also planning to step up efforts to manage water better on peatlands, he added.

In Paris, experts said there was a need to bring all those involved in the palm oil industry together in a joint push to end the fires.

Some of the biggest palm oil producers and traders, including Golden Agri-Resources Ltd (GAR) and Sime Darby, are expanding their efforts up to 5 kilometres beyond their plantation boundaries, providing villagers with employment opportunities and other assistance to reduce fire hotspots.

But Agus Purnomo, managing director for sustainability with GAR, questioned what would happen beyond that 5km limit.

“That is the big elephant in the room... This is not something the company can deal with on its own,” he said.

It will require collaboration between the government’s planned new peatland agency, plantation companies, researchers and NGOs, he added.

Who profits?

Herry Purnomo, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research, said unclear land tenure and insecure concessions were at the root of the problem, alongside land politics that allow “strong, powerful people” to benefit from the burning.

His analysis shows that when land is cleared by cutting down trees, it generates profits of US$665 per hectare, shared between the farmer groups who do the work, local elites who organise the groups, village heads and others.

If land is burned, the benefits rise to US$856 per hectare, as it is faster, cheaper and leaves peat soil in a better condition for planting. When planted with oil palm over a three-year period, the figure rises to US$3,077 per hectare.

In every scenario, it is local elites who receive at least half of the profit.

“The fires have been happening for 20 years, and I don’t believe the governments are stupid, so I suspect that people are trying to influence the government not to have enough budget to stop them, because fires benefit (various) people,” Purnomo said.

In Paris, Noerdin announced a ‘South Sumatra Eco-Region Alliance’, to be overseen by the Zoological Society of London and partly funded by Britain and Norway.

It will bring in other international partners to tackle deforestation, peatland degradation, wildfires and climate change impacts in the Sembilang-Dangku peat swamp forests.

Experts are putting their hope in models like this involving cooperation between governments, businesses and local people, as a comprehensive way of tackling the haze fires. But there are doubts they can work fast enough to head off trouble in 2016.

“We’ve not done enough now to stop the fires for next year - that’s my prediction,” Simon Lord, head of sustainability for Sime Darby, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

- Thomson Reuters Foundation