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Of forest fires, environment, conflict and climate change

Updated On: Jun 19, 2007

As the dry season and the predicted recurrence of El-Nino this year is approaching, the topic of forest (and peatland) fires is again receiving more attention.

It is predicted that this year’s fires will be worse than last year’s due to extreme weather event and could be worst if the government does not accomplish adequate action. The fires typically begin in earnest when the dry season starts. This year's season is expected next month.

Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, as the main source of fires and haze, Singapore and Malaysia have carried through efforts to tackle the problem. 

Indonesian Ministry of Forestry has collected funds amounting to 300 billion rupiahs (about USD 33 million) from different institutions for efforts to avert and overcome forest fires for one year. The minister expressed hope the number of hot spots in Indonesia`s forests could be reduced up to less than 50 percent. He said in an anticipatory measure his ministry had made socialization and educational tours inNorth Sumatra, Jambi, Central Kalimantan and Riau. Forestry Minister, Malam Sambat Kaban was optimistic that with the involvement of regional heads, National Defence Force and Police, forest fires inIndonesia could be drastically reduced in 2007. The team consisting of the Ministry of Forestry and the previously-mentioned stakeholders is working on more frequent regular patrols and helicopter surveillance over the affected areas to monitor the land-clearing practices by farmers and plantation owners.

He disclosed that a number of big companies have been committed to participating in the effort to avoid and overcome forest fires so as to reduce the number of hot spots. "In June 2006, there were about 200 hot spots, and now only two hot spots are detected in Riau and Jambi," Kaban said.

Meanwhile, the Singapore government had drawn up a masterplan to help fight the forest fires, and is waiting for the implementation. The masterplan addresses fire prevention and suppression, legislation and enforcement, early warning and monitoring, and regional and international collaboration.  Singapore Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Dr Yaacob, who will be attending the third Ministerial Steering Committee Meeting in Jambi together with ministers from IndonesiaMalaysiaBrunei and Thailand, said he plans to query Indonesia's progress on its commitment to cut the number of hot spots by 50 per cent this year.  However, Indonesian Forestry Minister Kaban was reported in The Jakarta Post that he had not received the masterplan.  He also commented that the Indonesian government would carefully examine any offer of overseas assistance or cooperation as “he was concerned foreign aid could disturb the country’s sovereignty”.

At the global level, the World Bank is planning to set up an international fund of at least US$ 250 million to fight deforestation, which contributes to global warming. Indonesia, home to the world’s second largest rainforest and at the same time one of significant carbon dioxide emitters is the target for the fund. This initiative is aimed at providing incentive to reduce the fast deforestation rate, and includes effort to combat forest and land fires. This programme is expected to be launched at the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties in Bali in December. During the Bali conference, it is expected that the parties will agree on basic issues of the new climate change negotiation agenda REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are disappearing 30 percent faster than previously estimated, according to a UNEP report released early last week. The report said illegal loggers in large national parks were clearing an estimated 2.1 million ha of forest a year for timber worth US$4 billion (S$6 billion). Further pressure came from plantation owners clearing forests for palm oil trees to meet the demand for biofuels. The report estimates that up to 88 per cent of all Indonesian timber is logged illegally and usually shipped abroad after being processed into lumber in saw mills or used as pulp.

Elsewhere, China, who will soon take over US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gases emitter has just publicised a national action plan in response to global warming. The National Climate Change Programme document the efforts the country has made in tackling climate change, analyses the future challenges for China and also describes its policies and positions on international cooperation.  According to Chen Gang & Li Mingjiang in a commentary in the Straits Times, China has both domestic and international reasons for implementing this new programme. At the domestic level, it is in China's self-interest to reduce and make more efficient its energy consumption. The programme also gives China a negotiating platform in upcoming discussions on international cooperation with regard to global warming. Diplomatically, China's continued participation in international cooperation on global warming has so far proved to be a boon to its profile.

Meanwhile, the environmental awareness among Chinese is also growing, given the deteriorating environmental quality such as algae-infested lakes, smog-filled cities, and rivers coloured black, red and green by chemical discharge. A growing number of cities suffer from acid rain and air pollution caused by surging car ownership and round- the-clock construction. A government survey of the air quality in 595 Chinese cities found that nearly two in three suffered from air pollution last year. Only 37.6 per cent of the cities surveyed had air quality considered 'clean and healthy', down 7.3 percentage points from 2005.

Public protests have been growing in China over the various environmental issues.  But it is unclear how this surge in 'green dissent' will eventually play out in China, said Ms Ma, who has been running the non-governmental Xiamen Greencross Association since 2000.  However, it is obvious, she added, that ordinary Chinese, the government, big businesses, as well as the country's nascent environmental movement, have some tough questions to ask themselves in the days ahead. How these different groups respond to one another will have widespread implications beyond the mere control of pollution. Billions of dollars could hang in the balance if this rising tide of 'green dissent' is mismanaged. Xiamen University student Chen Guiyuan said: 'Maybe Chinese officials will finally take the environment seriously now that they realize how expensive their miscalculation can be.'

Further afield, it is interesting to note UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying that climate change is partly to blame for the conflict in Sudan’s Dafur region, where droughts have provoked fighting over water sources.

"Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand -- an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers," Ban wrote in an editorial that appeared Saturday in The Washington Post. "Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic."  Rainfall in Sudan began declining two decades ago. Settled farmers and Arab nomadic herders had gotten along until the drought, he wrote, but as conditions worsened, water and food shortages disrupted the peace and "evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today." Ban said similar ecological problems are behind conflicts in other countries, including Somalia and Ivory Coast.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when local rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government, accusing it of decades of neglect. Sudanese leaders are accused of unleashing the pro-government Arab militia, the janjaweed, to fight them - a charge they deny.

"Any peace in Darfur must be built on solutions that go to the root causes of the conflict," the UN Sec-Gen said. He also called for sustained economic development, possibly involving new irrigation and water storage techniques and efforts to improve health, education and roads.  (19 June 2007)

Sources:

5 Asean ministers to review anti-haze efforts (Straits Times, 19 June 2007)

RI ready for forest fires, but adverse to foreign help (Jakarta Post, 18 June 2007)

Funds for handling forest fires reach Rp300 bln (Antara, 17 June 2007)

Jakarta clear about beating haze (Straits Times, 15 June 2007)

Haze masterplan now with Indonesia (Straits Times, 15 June 2007)

World Bank plans fund to curb forest loss (Straits Times, 13 June 2007)

Indonesian rainforests disappearing fast (Straits Times, 13 June 2007)

Bali climate conference set to make its mark (Jakarta Post, 14 June 2007)

CHINA'S NATIONAL CLIMATE CHANGE PROGRAMME, All set for global warming talks, By Chen Gang & Li Mingjiang (Straits Time, 14 June 2007)

Red China's green revolution (Straits Time, 17 June 2007)

Climate change at the root of Darfur conflict – Ban (Associated Press, 17 June 2007)