What came before the fire

Avoiding further devastation from land fires in Indonesia means unraveling the complex causes fueling them.
Preventing future fire and haze means unraveling what is really happening on the ground. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

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Governments and corporations operating in Indonesia must understand the complex political economy fueling the recurrent land fires, if further catastrophes are to be avoided, experts say.

Forest and land fires across Indonesia this year left some 2.6 million hectares burned, with costs estimated in the tens of billions, at least 19 deaths and countless illness, and possibly more carbon dioxide emitted daily than the entire US economy.

Weather conditions are ripe for further fires to spark with the end of the rainy season in early 2016—and research shows that preventing them means not simply identifying who lights the match, but rather disentangling and communicating the many reasons why.

“There’s a lot of politics happening on the ground,” Herry Purnomo, a CIFOR scientist who is among those investigating the causes of the fires in Riau, Sumatra, said at the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum earlier this month. “This is a whole economy on the ground.”


One finding from CIFOR’s three-year study in Riau is that there is a connection between the fires and local elections—held this year on 9 December.

“We collected data from NASA for 15 years for the whole of Kalimantan and Sumatra and we found that each year before elections the number of fires is very high,” Purnomo said on the sidelines of a workshop in Riau in November. “So we wonder if land politics is also part of this.”

Understanding the whole cycle of land use—and abuse—and putting it into spatial planning is also critical, he believes.

“In many areas of Indonesia, the spatial plan is not enforced or simply not agreed to,” he said. “So there are some cowboys out there, people who can take advantage of these vague spatial plans that don’t have all the data needed.”


Clarifying where the fires started and who owned that land is another part of the team’s research, which has included a detailed analysis of the 2013 fires, conducted in part by CIFOR scientist David Gaveau.

“With a combination of drones and satellites we found that over half the burning is on idle [degraded] lands,” Gaveau said.

“But we also found that about 35 percent—more than a third—has burned on productive lands including oil palm and acacia.”

Which means that, for each hectare of idle land cleared by burning in preparation for planting, more than half a hectare of productive plantation is also burned.

One interpretation of these data is that the ongoing agricultural expansion in these areas—mainly of oil palm—is not sustainable.

“The plantation that existed last year, and is burning now, will revert to an idle land situation next year,” Gaveau said. “And all this idle land will stay in a perpetual state of degradation because it is too difficult to develop for agriculture.”


But even though all those involved—governments at all levels, companies and communities—are seeking solutions, other CIFOR research has found that perspectives on the fires and possible solutions differ greatly.

“We show there is no consensus between stakeholders as to a way forward, so there is no strong solution which comes through on which there is agreement between all,” said post-doctoral fellow Rachel Carmenta.

Which suggests that finding solutions also relies on stakeholders understanding each other’s interests and practices.

“There needs to be targeted engagement and outreach that can be cognizant of the way they are perceiving the situation and the way that they perceive ways forward,” Carmenta said.


Other parts of the solution lie in changing how the land is used.

Indonesia recently pledged to restore as much as 2 million hectares of peatland degraded in recent decades through fire and poor management. Achieving this includes blocking some of the canals that were built to drain the peat to make it more suitable for planting oil palm and other crops—and this, too, involves several stakeholder groups.

“What we need to do first is to develop a clear model—for example, one that includes canal blocking that can be implemented in company concessions as well as on community land,” said Fadrizal Labay, Head of Forestry Services Riau, who attended the workshop in Riau.

CIFOR’s research team is working with local communities in the village of Dompas in Riau to support efforts to block canals and to increase villagers’ farming techniques so they do not have to turn to slash-and-burn methods to clear the land.

But while such grassroots initiatives are important, major changes to how the land is used and regulated at all levels are needed before Indonesia can truly breathe easy, according to Haris Gunawan at the University of Riau.

“It’s about how we need to build a system of governance that is transparent, accountable and open, one that can be responsible,” Gunawan said. “Also the role of academics, scientists and civil society is important so they can provide input into government decision-making.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Herry Purnomo at h.purnomo@cgiar.org.
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Peatlands Oil palm Wetlands