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Peat fires the culprit

  • The white smoke from peat fires finds its way to Peninsular Malaysia thanks to the southwest monsoon. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily
  • The thick white smoke spurting out from the soil owing to spontaneous peat fires is different in nature from that caused by deliberate land clearings. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily
  • The charred soil might be a boon to agriculture, but could also trigger unimaginable environmental disaster. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

Translated by DOMINIC LOH
Sin Chew Daily

PEKANBARU, June 26 (Sin Chew Daily) -- Indonesians do not believe their country is causing the smog hazards in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, and residents and scholars in Riau province say the haze has been caused by the spontaneous peat fires owing to high temperatures.

From the air samples collected by the Indonesian authorities, it is found that the particles contained in the smoke from peat fires are much lighter than that caused by forest fires. and therefore more easily blown by the wind while forest fires only cause pollution in confined areas.

Depressingly, peat fires are way more difficult to extinguish than bush fires and the water sprinkled may not be able to put down the underground fire source.

When contacted by Sin Chew Daily, local residents, oil palm growers and local scholars all say the thick smoke blanketing much of Peninsular Malaysia at present is of different nature from that produced by forest fires. It is therefore deduced that the source of haze has been the spontaneous peat fires and not deliberate burning of forests.


A local Chinese resident who has been living in Riau province for more than two decades say everyone is aware that large swathes of land in the province contains peat which is oily in nature.

"The oily peat soil is soft. with high air content but it is of little use due to its oily nature. So it is not suitable for agriculture nor construction of houses."

He says the peat soil could be more than ten feet deep and during the dry season from March to June, the water content of the soil will be drastically reduced and the fire will start slowly underground.

He points out that coastal areas of Riau are rich in oil deposits and several crude oil tanks have been built there. Any attempt by oil palm growers to deliberately burn the forests could result in massive explosions.

"Plantation companies are using excavators to clear the land. Moreover, this is not the season for land clearing and there are no valid reasons for them to burn the forests."

However, he does not rule out the possibility of some irresponsible growers burning the forests, thus aggravating the smoggy conditions initiated by peat fires.

Dense smoke

Another local resident who claims to be well acquainted with the forest fires in Riau province says it is not hard to tell the source of smoke because based on their experiences in land clearings over the years, the smoke from burning of trees is not too thick, and will dissipate with the wind.

"The smoke from spontaneous peat fires is very dense and whitish and will not dissipate that easily. As the peat was formed through chemical reactions from decayed plants, the thick white smoke produced will also give the typical smell of burned plants."

He says the outside world has all the while misunderstood that the haze lingering over the skies of Malaysia and Singapore has been caused by forest clearings because of the burning smell.


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