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On the eve of talks in Pekanbaru, Riau, on best practices to prevent fire and haze, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo discusses the fires currently burning in Indonesia, the efforts being made to prevent them and restore affected land, and the next steps as the country moves toward a haze-free future.

There have been recent reports of fires in various parts of Indonesia. What is happening?

Fires started in June and July this year, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and in Papua. They are occurring because people are burning land to clear it, generally to plant oil palm.

Legally, it has been difficult to reduce the prevalence of fires for various reasons, even though the national government has been revoking forest concessions and putting good policies into place. People are illegally encroaching on land and burning it, and there is not sufficient capacity on the ground to protect all of these areas.

It is a difficult situation. I’ve spoken to Forestry Department officials in Riau and they have about nine million hectares of land but not enough budget or resources to protect it all. And open access to land and illegal land transactions make fires even more difficult to control.

Burning and clearing land for oil palm is an easy way for people to make money – and when I say “people” I don’t necessarily mean poor people but also the middle class, the wealthy, the private sector. Many are trying to get rich by growing oil palm. Laws are getting better and better, but there is a battle occurring on the ground.

   An aerial view of canals alongside oil palm in Dompas, Riau. CIFOR/Mokhamad Edliadi

After the fire and haze event in 2015, have things improved? What progress has been made?

In 2016 the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), together with the Ministries of Agriculture; Environment and Forestry; and Villages, Disadvantaged Regions and Transmigration, came together to develop a ‘grand design’ to reduce fire and haze, which we contributed to. The strategy includes economic incentives to not burn land, and efforts to improve local institutions and the capacity of communities to prevent fires.

The plan has become the guidelines for everyone in Indonesia for 2017 to 2019. And with its implementation, it is believed fires can be reduced by as much as 50 percent from business as usual.

There is a new law, Government Regulation 57/2016 on peatlands management, that we will be discussing in Pekanbaru at this week’s Dialogue. This law has inspired a lot of debate, as it states that all companies with plantations on peat swamps have to move from those lands. This has been a springboard as companies and some local governments have been arguing that this will jeopardize their work and the local and national economy, as there is estimated to be 1.8 million hectares of plantation on peatlands currently. So it is becoming a livelihoods versus conservation issue, with concerns that it will impact outside investment in the country.

   Activists in Palangkaraya put masks on city statues as a symbol of protest against peatland fires. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR
   A farmer works his land in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, on 13 October 2015. The haze from peat fires in the area disrupted harvests, as well as schools, office work and transportation throughout the region. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

You have been conducting research on these issues for years. What has your research demonstrated and what has been accomplished?

In the course of my research in Riau, we have been promoting the development of local laws, as laws mostly come from Jakarta, and we found that there are many local particulars when it comes to fire prevention. We have been working with governments at the provincial and district levels and other stakeholders including the private sector, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and Parliament members to provide inputs, based on our research, to the development of laws and regulations on fire prevention that are adapted to local conditions.

So this will hopefully impact a provincial-level law in Riau and a binding regulation in Bengkalis regency that includes fire prevention and post-fire restoration of peatlands. This is also in line with President Jokowi’s Presidential Instruction No. 15/2015, which requires each province and regency to develop regulations to improve control of fires.

What were the inputs and suggestions for that local Riau law?

In the draft of the law, among others, there is an obligation for the local government to commit sufficient money to fire prevention and restoration and incentivize local communities not to burn. The second input was the obligation to do detailed mapping of the land, because, as we know, it is not always clear who owns the land being burned. Third is support for police, as it can be very difficult to prove who starts fires, and police often don’t have sufficient resources to find the evidence and pursue an investigation. Fourth is improvements to the legal system, including increased awareness by judges, district authorities and the police about environmental laws, as these can be quite unique and some are unfamiliar.

   Peatland forest in Parupuk village in Katingan, Central Kalimantan, sits virtually untouched. When peatlands are drained, frequently by digging canals, they are susceptible to fire. Once fires start, they are very difficult to extinguish. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

With this week’s National Policy Dialogue, what are you hoping will emerge?

From the CIFOR side, this will be part of translating our research into impact. Through this Dialogue we will be communicating the importance of binding local laws based on evidence and science for preventing fire and haze, and sharing this with other provinces and regencies. And this is in line with the Presidential Instruction.

We are inviting the community to share their experiences in preventing fires and restoring land so there are success stories from the ground up. Companies are also invited to engage and discuss what they are doing.

Right now it is fire season, which is why we are holding this National Policy Dialogue now and why we are holding it in Riau, an area that experiences fire and haze every year, so that people, the community, local government and private companies can come together to talk about fires and haze where and when they are happening.

   Members of the Indonesian armed forces battle a peatland fire outside Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan on 14 October 2015, during the height of the major fire and haze event that year. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR
For more information on this topic, please contact Herry Purnomo at
This research was supported by UKAID.
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Deforestation Peatlands Fire & haze Rights