Fire in agriculture is a mixed blessing. A cost-effective tool for poor farmers, fire has been key for food production for millennia. In 2000, vegetation fires covered 350 Mha – or about 3% of the global land area – most of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The benefits of these fires must be recognized. Indeed, appropriately managed fire has an important role in many landscapes and ecological settings.
Obviously, current agriculture fires on peatlands in the Indonesian archipelago do not fall in this category. They cause, in order of importance, health disasters, displacement of people, food production issues, business disruptions, land degradation, climate impact, political turmoil, and upset international relations.
Clearly, hoses and water bombing are not going to make a key difference to put out the fires (rains will be needed), and no difference at all in addressing the underlying factors.
As repeated many times in recent months, this story repeats itself each year. Another repeating pattern is the rapidly disappearing attention once rains mark the end of the agriculture fire season.
Now, repeating sentiments from earlier years, what can we do to break the cycle of the haze over the long term? How might we address the underlying drivers and achieve sustainable solutions?
To launch a new version of this narrative, I submit that addressing impact on the global climate is not the first priority for solving the crisis, despite the significance of emitted greenhouse gases, as has been quoted in the media. Nor should one have a first focus on biodiversity conservation and the integrity of peatland ecosystems, important as they are.
From a solutions perspective, we may set ourselves up for failure if we start by trying to answer the environmental concerns. It may be more constructive to view reduced impact on climate and environment as a great and much-needed co-benefit to solutions to health, poverty, food and governance issues.
Now is the time to decide on proper actions for the long term, before the haze and attention blows over
So what now?
Rains will eventually mark the end of the agriculture land-clearing season and put out remaining fires. We will then be haze-free for another three to nine months or so.
News reporting will rapidly disappear and make way for other current events that are more tangible and marketable. Similarly, the political motivation for long-term engagement may dwindle.
Solving the underlying factors will take time. Now is the time to decide on proper actions for the long term, before the haze and attention blows over.
At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), we are discussing ways forward, together with partners. We have come to a few starting points with a common denominator that fire and haze need to be raised to a higher level and address development more broadly.
Going forward, we identify a range of essential direct outcomes we should strive for, including:
- Drastically reduced conversion of forests into agriculture
- Reduced use of fire in agriculture
- Overall reduction of cultivation on peatlands
- Improved opportunities for rural livelihoods and income
- Improved markets and value chains for sustainable products
- Restoration of degraded peatlands
We believe the consequent impacts should be formulated in similarly broad terms:
- Improved health
- Reduced poverty
- Reduced risks in food production
- Reduced losses for businesses across many sectors
- Reduced emissions of greenhouse gases
Further, as we strive to achieve fire prevention at scale, actions must target transformations of behavior and practices that can be scaled up. Focus should be on actions that provide the poor with alternatives to fire-based agriculture on peatlands (as workers or farmers). This will likely include broad fiscal policies directed towards supporting the poor.
Behavioral change also extends to investors, with reinforced awareness and the involvement of financial institutions being key. Effective prosecution will continue to play a key role. Research, outreach, education, public awareness-raising and capacity development are all important components of the solutions.
Finally and importantly, we will need a partnership for a multi-year program that is inter-disciplinary across the forestry, agriculture, health, finance, law enforcement, large scale business, and education sectors.
Some selected actions to consider include:
- Public investment (fiscal policies to address the needs of rural people, such as schooling, healthcare, job creation, incentives for non-fire agriculture);
- Engagement by banks and financial institutions to curb inappropriate investments (in Indonesia and abroad) by conditioning financial services;
- Deeper engagement with corporations active in large-scale land use;
- Easing bureaucracy and raising the accountability of public institutions;
- Reforms of land-use policies, spatial planning and land tenure;
- Targeted public awareness campaigns (education, TV, media, social networks) to promote sustainable development, alternative technologies/investments in agriculture and enforcement reforms;
- Research the effects (positive and negative) on health, agriculture, businesses under different scenarios;
- Research effects of fire and haze on climate, including aspects other than global warming (such as local cooling);
- Research and pilot effective peatland restoration measures.
Obviously, this is a tall order, but now is the time to decide on ways forward.
Otherwise, this will just be another article that will be quoted in years to come to illustrate a past that lacked political and moral will to find lasting solutions.
While serving at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Peter Holmgren served as Chief, Forest Resources Development and was in charge of two leading publications on the use of fire: Fire management – global assessment 2006 and Fire management: Voluntary guidelines. Principles and strategic actions.
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