Pekanbaru. At least 2.4 million hectares of peatland forest was burned in Riau over the last 12 years and with fires expected to intensify this year an additional 1.6 million hectares are likely to be lost, forest conservationists said on Thursday.
“From the data we’ve gathered, the number of fires are likely to increase, as indicated by the total number of hot spots,” said Rahman Siddik, the head of Riau’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
Siddik said the agency was currently compiling an inventory of this year’s fire hot spots and burned forest areas.
Major peatland and forest fires continue to rage out of control in the province because of what local authorities say is a lack of rain and fire-fighting equipment.
“We have dispatched all of our firefighters to extinguish the fires,” Siddick said. “Fortunately, the fires have not yet reached the conservation areas.”
Susanto Kurniawan, the coordinator of Forest Rescue Network Riau (Jikalahari), said the region would continue to be blanketed by haze from the fires without government intervention.
“Peatland forests remain under threat because permits allowing them to be turned into plantations continue to be issued,” Susanto said.
It is illegal to clear land using fire in Indonesia, however the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration recorded more than 2,500 hot spots so far this year in Riau alone.
Land conversion of primary forests, rice fields and peatland into plantations is one of the major contributors to global carbon emissions.
Conservationists have said that many of the illegal forest fires were started to clear rain forest for palm oil or pulp and paper plantations.
The haze caused by forest destruction has been blamed for increasing average annual temperatures in the province by 2 degrees Celsius over the last 30 years, according to data from Riau University.
Haze can become so thick in Riau that it disrupts flights, and this week air quality was so bad local health officials handed out masks to residents.
Susanto said the worst haze occurred in 1997, when smoke spread as far as Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand.
“The air pollution was very dangerous, plus it created very limited visibility,” he said.