BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei is set to introduce a law that will tackle “rampant” open burning in an effort to mitigate bush and forest fires.

Acting Director of Department of Environment, Parks and Recreation (JASTRe), Martinah Hj Tamit, on Monday said an amendment to the Environmental Protection and Management Order is currently being finalised.

“The regulation will impose fines on those found carrying out open burning as a deterrent to this irresponsible and potentially dangerous activity,” she said in her opening remarks for the 21st Meeting of the Technical Working Group on Transboundary Haze Pollution held at the Rizqun International Hotel.

According to the senior official, open burning in Brunei is still a “rampant issue”, with residents accustomed to burning green waste in their backyard often leading to uncontrollable bush and forest fires.

Statistics provided by JASTRe showed that there were 391 reported cases of open burning between June 2018 and July 2019 — almost one a day. Statistics for previous years were not available.

Brunei also experienced a prolonged dry spell in the first quarter of 2019, with 461 bush and forest fires recorded, destroying more than 161 hectares of forest.

Martinah told The Scoop there is no dedicated law to penalise open burning,and that offenders are charged under Section 277A of Penal Code, which states that any person who “wilfully or negligently starts or keeps any fire” can be fined up to $100,000.

“This provision however is only prescribed during the dry season. With this new law – which will be enforced by JASTRe – we hope to not only raise awareness [on the dangers of open burning] but also to consistently control and monitor these open burning activities,” she added.

Although no timeline has been set for the new law to come into force, JASTRe is planning to socialise the new regulations among members of the public and educate them on sustainable methods of managing green waste, such as composting.

“In Brunei, thankfully we don’t experience haze to the extent of other countries,” Martinah said, noting that between June 2018 and July 2019 Brunei registered good or clean air quality on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI).

Speaking on the transboundary haze meeting — attended by representatives from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand — Martinah said it was pertinent for ASEAN member states to share best practices in mitigating forest fires.

Although hotspots are often contained within individual countries, the resulting smoke and emissions travel across borders — especially as the region experiences more climate extremes — affecting the air quality of neighbouring countries.

The dry spell in March brought hotter and drier weather conditions than usual, recording just 58.9mm of rainfall — a massive drop from the monthly average of 130mm for March.