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Campaign against open burning

Oil palm planters in Indonesia are often unfairly blamed for open burning on peatland and causing pollution. In clearing the air on the haze, Sime Darby Bhd has set out to intensify awareness on best practices in peat agriculture among villagers near its estates in Riau. OOI TEE CHING writes.

OIL palm planters invest a lot of money in heavy machinery to clear the land, compact the peat soil and dig up canals. 

This process keeps the peat soil moist, so that the oil palm trees can grow properly and yield to their potential. Incidentally, it also makes the soil less flammable and hinders fire from spreading.

“The canal depth depends on the topography of the field and planting density, but the primary objective is to keep the water levels at 50cm to 75cm from the surface at most times,” said Sime Darby head of plantation operations for Sumatera region Karpanasamy Rengasamy.

This is achieved through a series of stops, weirs and water-gates. Periodic flushing of the acidic and excessive storm water during the rainy season is also carried out, he added.

When asked the inevitable question if Sime Darby had carried out open burning and caused air pollution two months ago, the planter replied: “Our oil palm plantations in Riau are of mature ages. Why would we want to burn our productive trees?”

He also confirmed that Indonesia’s Kementerian Lingkungan Hidup & Kepolisian and other local authorities had visited Sime Darby’s estates late June 2013 in Riau and found no evidence of open burning. Also present was Sime Darby general manager of estates in South Sumatera Ahmad Sahfengi Mohd Salleh.

Asked to comment on satellite pictures showing many hot spots across Sumatera as indicative of fiery blaze around the plantation companies’ land bank, Sahfengi replied: “We must take note that in Indonesia, 20 per cent of plantation land bank is usually occupied by local villagers. They are scattered within our concessions and at the border of our estates.” 

Oil palms have always been planted on managed peat where the soil is properly compacted and kept moist in a network of canals. 

On the other hand, small farmers usually plant their cash crops on unmanaged peat. Unknown to many, unmanaged peat is highly flammable during droughts. 

In a recent visit to Sime Darby’s Nusa Lestari estate, which is part of oil palm concession held under PT Bhumireksa Nusasejati, reporters from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia’s Bisnis Indonesia, Kompas and Antara news agencies experienced first hand the difference between a well-managed peatland and one that is not.

Our feet sank with every step we took into the middle of a spongy, razed field. “I’m sinking. The soil is so soft!” a reporter shrieked.

An agronomist, who is familiar with Sumatera’s soil profile, noted that it is a typical characteristic of unmanaged peat. In a separate interview at a coffeeshop, he explained the difference between unmanaged and managed peat. 

He drew an analogy by comparing the cross-section profiles of a traditional Indonesian sponge cake called bahulu and that of a dense layer cake.

He bit into the bahulu and pointed to the cross section of the sponge cake. He asked, “Can you see the big holes? This is like the profile of unmanaged peat.”

He then flattened the sponge cake between his palms. “When there is considerable soil compaction by heavy machinery, the big holes in the peat become small holes and the top soil layer is compressed and become dense like a layer cake. 

“The compaction enhances capillary rise, resulting in higher water-filled pore space in the peat. That means the water from the bottom of the peat seeps up and moisten the top soil, therefore making it less flammable,” he said. 

“So, even if there was an accidental fire ignited by carelessly thrown cigarette butts in times of drought, it is unlikely to spread because the compacted peat soil is moist,” he said.

After a break, the media entourage moved on to another plot of unmanaged peat outside Sime Darby’s estates.

This time, a corn farmer named Suswono, 45, was present to answer media queries when we docked from our mini-speedboats by the side of the canal.

He admitted that the field of maize he was tilling was cleared by open burning three months ago. He then added that it was his friend’s doing and not his. 

Asked if he knew that fire on unmanaged peat spreads and smoulders underground, his eyes widened.

It then became apparent that it is timely for Sime Darby to intensify its communication campaign to surrounding villagers in Riau on the extensive damage of open burning.

The corn farmer listened attentively as Sahfengi explained that Sime Darby had formed a volunteer group named Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA) or Community Against Open Burning.

Volunteers among the villagers are recruited to spread the word against open burning. Sahfengi said Sime Darby’s team of firefighters will continue to engage with MPA volunteers to spread the word on the health dangers and extensive damage of open burning.

“We set up MPA last year and in the years to come we’ll intensify the campaign to neighbouring villagers on the dangers of open burning to health. We hope to also raise awareness on best practices in peat agriculture among the community here,” Sahfengi said.

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