Environment

Transboundary haze in Southeast Asia:

What’s peat got to do with it?

by Helena Varkkey and Michelle Ann Miller

People in Southeast Asia are breathing some of the most polluted air in the world.

Haze originates from fires, usually linked to land clearing for agricultural activities. Its coverage, density, and duration depend on the severity of the fires, environmental safeguards in place in land-use regimes, and seasonal and climatic conditions.

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An illustration of an underground water table beneath a peatland.
Credits: Help stop the haze, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, 2014

Natural situation

Peat accumulates over thousands of years, capturing and storing carbon in a waterlogged dome between 5 and 50 km in diameter.

Drainage

Drainage and deforestation of peatlands lowers the water table, reducing carbon intake and accelerating peat decomposition.

Continued drainage

Decomposition of dried-out peat releases carbon dioxide and causes land subsidence. Drained and degraded peatlands are more prone to haze-causing wildfires.

End stage

Carbon loss and land subsidence will continue unless efforts are taken to protect intact peatlands and rehabilitate drained and degraded peatlands.

Filters

Use the filters to explore which lands have been affected

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Map of the Malaysia and Indonesia region showing (1) peatlands, (2) palm oil plantations, (3) woodfibre plantations, and (4) hotspots of heightened fire risk on 23 September 2015.

Click on the products to find out more

An illustration of a supermarket shelf with common products such as biscuits, chocolate, oil, tissue paper and paper plates.
Illustrated logo for MSPO
Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Greenlabel
Singapore Green Label
Illustrated logo for ISPO
Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Rainforest Alliance
Rainforest Alliance
Illustrated logo for Forest Stewardship Council
Forest Stewardship Council
An illustration of packets of biscuits and chocolate.
Illustrated logo for MSPO
Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for ISPO
Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Rainforest Alliance
Rainforest Alliance
Illustrated logo for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Forest Stewardship Council
Forest Stewardship Council
Illustrated logo for Greenlabel
Singapore Green Label
An illustration of chocolate and biscuits packets on a supermarket shelf.
Illustrated logo for MSPO
Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for ISPO
Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
Illustrated logo for Rainforest Alliance
Rainforest Alliance
Illustrated logo for Forest Stewardship Council
Forest Stewardship Council
Illustrated logo for Greenlabel
Singapore Green Label

Examples of sustainability labels for palm oil and peatland products, achieved through compliance with certification programs that meet industry standards for best practice.

Illustrated logo for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

Sustainable Palm Oil

  • Fire cannot be used for land preparation
  • Fire prevention requires cooperation among peatland stakeholders
  • No new planting on peat since November 2018
  • For existing peatland cultivation, drainability assessments must be carried out before replanting
  • Management plans need to adhere to peatland best practices.
Illustrated logo for Greenlabel

Sustainable Pulp and Paper Products

  • A zero-burning policy;
  • Comprehensive fire management, including mapping of fire risks, a fire prevention budget, engaging communities to promote fire-free alternatives to land preparation, daily hotspot monitoring, and strengthening firefighting training and equipment;
  • Comprehensive peatland management, including water table management and biodiversity protection.
Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com
In collaboration with
Dr Michelle Ann Miller

Dr Michelle Ann Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Her research interests include environmental governance, urban change and transboundary relations in Southeast Asia.

Dr Helena Varkkey

Dr Helena Varkkey is an Associate Professor at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya and an Associate Member of the Inter-Asia Engagements Cluster at the Asia Research Institute. Her research areas include transboundary haze diplomacy in Southeast Asia and global palm oil politics.

Asia Research Institute

The Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is one of the world's foremost research centres on Asia. The Institute brings together scholars working across the social sciences and humanities, forming a vital space for Asia-focused cross-disciplinary research collaboration. 

Credits
Authors / Helena Varkkey, Michelle Ann Miller
Code / Siti Aishah, Bianchi Dy
Design and Illustration / Amanda Teo, Griselda Gabriele
Editorial / Zafirah Zein, Kenneth Wee
Video / Isaac Kerlow, with special thanks to The Earth Observatory of Singapore, Alexander Hotz and Sergi Ferran
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