August 31, 2016

Harsher Penalties for Open Burning

Harsher Penalties for Open Burning

Persistent haze from open burning can frequently become a blight on Malaysia's environment and people's health. Photo Credit: Flickr

And here it comes – trans-boundary haze from Indonesia, that is. Every summer, regular as clockwork, forest and peat fires set in Indonesia for clearing land waft over the border with Malaysia to cover much of the countHry in noxious fumes for days and weeks at a time. The haze can worsen air quality for long periods, cause and aggravate a variety of respiratory and other illnesses, and turn into a blight for the environment.

The good news is that this year the haze is expected to be less severe than in previous years, thanks to measures by Indonesian authorities to clamp down on slash-and-burn agriculture in response to pressure from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore. Extra rainfall in some areas, too, has helped keep the fires in check. “I hope the current conditions persist until we enter October at least when the wind directions change,” said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar.

Forest clearing with fire can leave apocalyptic landscapes in its wake in Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo Credit: Greenpeace

Forest clearing with fire can leave apocalyptic landscapes in its wake in Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo Credit: Greenpeace

We can all wax hopeful about that. The problem, of course, is that there still is far too much haze for comfort. Right on cue, at the end of August, the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula came to be enveloped in thick smoke blown there from Sumatra by strong northeasterly winds. Visibility and air quality both dropped significantly.

Aerial monitoring of forests and peatlands in West Kalimantan and Sumatra has borne fruit, but Indonesian authorities have not yet managed to stamp out the practice of land clearing by fire once and for all. “If Indonesia has the right system and make amends to their current legislation to be more friendly towards the environment, I am optimistic the issue of haze and trans-boundary haze can be resolved,” the minister added.

Wan Junaidi has called for tougher penalties to Indonesian small landowners who practice open burning in slash-and-burn clearing of their land, and rightfully so. Currently, the law allows smallholders with plantations that cover less than two acres to engage in slash-and-burn. The trouble with that is that open burning on lots of small plots can add up to one mighty fire. In addition, even small fires can spiral out of control and ravage adjacent forests.

In Malaysia, a law is in the works that will enable authorities to impose far harsher fines on people who engage in slash-and-burn agriculture in their backyards, thereby endangering the local environment and worsening air quality in the area. “Once the law has been passed in parliament, an offender for backyard burning can be slapped with a compound of maybe RM2,000 while plantation operators  conducting slash-and-burn will be slapped with a heavier compound up to RM500,000,” Wan Junaidi added.

Indonesian authorities ought to follow suit. The only way to stop agricultural clearing with open burning is to make it prohibitively expensive for people who do so through strict financial penalties.

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