The fire was burning right under our feet through metres of dense peatland. Plumes of smoke pockmarked the widening fire zone in the middle of Pekan Baru in Sumatra.
Half a dozen firefighters raced from one smoldering patch to another. Their efforts, severely hampered by few resources, seemed in vein. Just when they appeared to be making progress, the small tank on the back of their fire truck would run out of water. When the tank ran dry firefighters dropped their equipment, unhooked their pipes and dispatched the truck to a nearby water source. An inconvenient, but not unwelcome, time to rest, albeit in the middle of thick smoke speckled with ash.
As they waited for their truck to return, firefighters put this forest fire into perspective. Despite its unpredictability and persistence, this is one of Riau Province’s smaller “hot spot” priorities. Much bigger blazes are burning across the area, some out of control. So far, water-bombing helicopters have offered little reprieve and there is not a rain cloud in sight.
Over the past week much has been written, reported and said about the hardships being faced, and inconvenience endured, by Singaporeans and Malaysians as smoky haze from Sumatra’s forest fires drifts across the Straits of Malacca. But few have stopped to think about the locals in places like Pekan Baru.
Many people living and working near the forest fires – most of which, according to the local authorities, are on land where slash-and-burn clearing exercises have gone wrong – are angry and frustrated. There is thick smoke in the atmosphere. Some find it hard to breathe. They, like people in Singapore and Malaysia, are also complaining of headaches and sore eyes and I dare say, conditions in Pekan Baru are far worse than in neighbouring countries.
Clearing land by fire is an annual event in Sumatra. During the dry season small subsistence farmers and big plantation companies clear hundreds of hectares of land. Locals say the government is quick to tell them to find more environmentally friendly ways, but slower to deliver tangible and sustainable alternatives. However, a Sumatra-based environmental group argues the big companies, clearing swathes of land, are the ones to blame for the majority of Sumatra’s forest fires and the resulting haze.
The problems plaguing Sumatra are indicative of the island’s wider development conundrum. Global demand for products such as palm oil is growing rapidly and so too is the need for more land. But without adequate, all-encompassing regulation and effective monitoring of land clearing activities, forest fires, like the ones raging in Riau Province, will be hard to avoid.