Singaporean joins the fight against peatland fires in Riau

Singaporean Benjamin Tay (in blue) joined volunteer firefighters in Tanjung Sari village to help put out a peatland fire. — TODAY pic
Singaporean Benjamin Tay (in blue) joined volunteer firefighters in Tanjung Sari village to help put out a peatland fire. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 23 — Benjamin Tay was in Sungai Tohor, a village in Riau, Indonesia, doing community engagement work as executive director of People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), when he heard about a forest fire at a nearby village on Friday night (September 20). 

Together with Indonesian peatland restoration group Ekonomi Kreatif Andalan (EKA), Tay travelled about 20km — about an hour on motorcycle — to Tanjung Sari village the next day (September 21) to help relieve volunteer firefighters.

Tay and his group brought N95 masks, food and water to the firefighters who were stationed at the edge of the forest that was on fire.

The 37-year-old also assisted with the firefighting efforts, helping to put out a fire raging across a 20sqm plot out of more than 10ha of peat forest land, which was burning underground. 

Tay held the hose and took instructions from the volunteer firefighters who made use of various techniques to help put out the fire. 

One such technique required them to use their shoes to loosen up the soil so that more water can enter the ground. In another method, Tay was instructed to aim the hose at a tree to simulate the effect of rain. 

Tay, who returned to Singapore yesterday, was in Riau for a total of three days.

His trip, which was originally supposed to be five days long, was cut short as he needed to return to Singapore to receive a batch of 2,000 masks that will be distributed to the community in Sungai Tohor when he returns on Wednesday (September 25). 

Speaking to TODAY on Monday (September 23), Tay, said it was his first time coming face-to-face with the peat fires.

His non-profit organisation, PM Haze, focuses on outreach, research and advocacy on the transboundary haze crisis. They collaborate frequently with the EKA in Indonesia for their advocacy and community outreach efforts. 

Though he had heard oral accounts and read the news about the peat fires before, he said he was still unprepared for what he experienced in the last few days.

“Being there really gives you the full experience of how difficult it is to put out a peat fire. When we were there, we doused the land for at least 45 minutes straight with water. But after we switched the water supply off, the piece of land was still burning as if we did not do anything to put out the fire in the first place,” he said.

Unlike non-peat forest fires, Tay said, peat forest fires travel underground, making it difficult for the fires to be put out completely. 

That is why peatland rehabilitation is crucial in preventing future fires, he added. 

Peatland rehabilitation restores the degrading peatlands in two ways: By re-wetting the peatlands to prevent the land from burning and reducing the fire risk and by replanting and rebuilding the soil of disturbed land.

Describing the experience as a “powerful moment”, Tay said that observing the firefighting efforts in person gave him greater conviction that his advocacy and peatland rehabilitation work with PM Haze was “very crucial” in helping to prevent future forest fires.

“Once the fires happen, aside from firefighting there is not much we can do,” Tay said.

“The most important thing for people to takeaway is that we cannot let the fires happen in the first place.” 

Preventing the haze is everyone’s responsibility 

While it would be unrealistic to expect Singaporeans to head over to Indonesia to help put out fires, Tay said that there were actions they could take here.

He encouraged Singaporeans to use more sustainably produced products. This means purchasing products, such as cooking oil, that are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Alternatively, consumers can also patronise restaurants that use sustainably sourced products. 

Currently, PM Haze’s website lists at least nine eateries in Singapore that use sustainable palm oil.

For other restaurants, Tay suggested that consumers ask if they are using products that are RSPO certified before patronising them. 

“The haze may come from Indonesia but as consumers we can play a part and call for more sustainable practices. We should take a stance of shared responsibility towards the haze issue,” he said.

That being said, Tay acknowledged that the solution to the haze challenge is not so straightforward. 

He noted that while the Indonesian government has introduced rehabilitation strategies — such as introducing a moratorium that prevents new planting on peatland — since 2015, enforcement is “one of the major challenges” to ensure that these policies are executed.

“The environmentalist in me says to stop growing on the peatland, but the economist in me says it’s not possible because commercial agriculture is important for community livelihood. What are people going to do with their livelihoods otherwise?” he said.

Tay however remains optimistic that PM Haze can continue to scale up its peatland restoration efforts to a larger area and other districts and make a significant difference in tackling the haze problem. 

“Efforts like these when we go to the ground and render our help... they can help Singaporeans see how we are part of the problem as well and how we can go and make a difference,” he added. — TODAY

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