By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Singaporean charity is working with villagers in Indonesia to restore ancient peatlands, seeking to curb the haze that chokes the region every year, organisers said on Thursday.
Indonesian farmers burn huge swathes of land every year to clear land for agricultural expansion, creating a vast haze that clouds the skies over large parts of Southeast Asia - including Singapore.
Now the People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), an advocacy group in the city-state, has launched a peatland restoration project in a tiny Indonesian village that suffered bad fires in 2014.
"One of the things we realised is that good management of peatland is very important for managing haze in the region," Benjamin Tay, executive director of PM Haze told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"A lot of the haze comes over from that part of Indonesia into Singapore, so by preventing fires and haze in that region, we prevent haze from coming to Singapore," he said.
Peaty soil is particularly flammable when dry, often causing fires to spread beyond their intended areas.
When peatlands are drained or cleared by fire, often to make way for oil palm plantations or farming, the carbon is released into the atmosphere where it traps heat, contributing to climate change.
Tay's group is improving canals in the area around Sungai Tohor, a farming village on an island off the coast of Sumatra with a population of about 1,000, to ensure the local peatlands can be kept wet.
PM Haze is also educating villagers about peatland conservation, setting up a nursery for tree replanting, and organising fire prevention workshops.
One of the worst ever peat and forest fire crises was in 2015 when a thick haze blanketed much of Southeast Asia, causing billions of dollars of economic losses.
About 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia was burned between June and October 2015, mainly on Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands, according to a 2016 World Bank report.
A Harvard University study the same year linked the haze to over 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore during 2015.
Tay said he hoped the scheme would be scaled up once the Sungai Tohor community was able to lead the project itself.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)