Indonesia - In Indonesia, few have forgotten the devastating peatland fires and suffocating haze that afflicted the greater region for several months over 2014-2015.
Agricultural fires across Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua at that time claimed millions of hectares of land and tens of thousands of lives, as toxic smoke spread across the country, reaching as far as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
President Joko Widodo responded by placing a total nationwide ban on the clearing or burning of peatlands, and formed the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to replenish damaged land.
But for this complex issue involving multiple stakeholders – from government agencies to researchers, multinational companies to smallholder farmers and communities – work on the ground to prevent future disaster is still just beginning.
More than 300 representatives from various sectors came together to discuss ways to strengthen local laws and learn from ground-level experience at a national policy dialogue in Pekanbaru last month, hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in collaboration with the University of Riau.
The dialogue on ‘Laws and Best Practices for Reducing Fire and Haze’ invited participants to share both their challenges and their success stories in breaking the dangerous annual cycle.
LAW OF THE LAND
The president’s decree on peatlands set the tone nationally for a change in land management practices. But research has found that local laws – issued at the provincial, regency or city level – can have even greater impact in reducing the risk of disaster.
Yulwiriawati Moesa, Head of the Riau Forestry and Environment Agency, reminded participants in the dialogue of a provincial regulation issued last year on the protection and management of peatlands, and said work was ongoing to fully implement it on the ground.
Nonetheless, she praised efforts that have so far prevented another major disaster.
“The province of Riau has managed to overcome the threat of a fire and haze disaster these past two years, after 18 years in shackles,” she said in her opening remarks.
CIFOR scientist Herry Purnomo recommended that any new legislation in the province or elsewhere should be based on scientific evidence and support community-level action for fire prevention and land restoration.
“We are happy that our research outputs can be used by all stakeholders to inform public debate, policies, regulations and best practices,” he said.
Effective work is being carried out at the ground level by local people, including farmers, landowners and volunteer fire fighters.
Rozi, head of the Fire Awareness Community (MPA) in Dompas village, Bengkalis regency, leads regular patrols to catch fires before they burn out of control, and works together with his community to re-green and re-wet degraded peatlands, including by blocking canals to allow water to return to the land.
He regularly catches small fires started by cigarette butts or mosquito coils, particularly in the dry season.
“When we go on patrol, we don’t get paid,” he said on the sidelines of the dialogue. “But in villages where there are no patrols, there’s sure to be fire.”
Economic issues are our main obstacles.
“It’s hard to convince others to join the patrols because it means they can’t take on other work that day, they don’t get paid, and then they can’t feed their families. Economic issues are our main obstacles,” he added.
Ongoing work in collaboration with CIFOR scientists is bringing water back to dry peatlands by blocking canals that were dug to drain them in the first place. The practice of draining and burning peatlands to clear land for agriculture is a major cause of deforestation, land degradation and fires in Riau.
THE BUSINESS OF BURNING
Recent decades have seen millions of hectares of peatlands converted to agricultural land, often for plantations of cash crops such as oil palm. The most cost-effective method to clear large areas of peatland is by burning, but as the 2014-2015 crisis shows, it cannot be considered a sustainable option.
Bambang Setiadi from Indonesia’s National Research Council said the damaging practice of peatland burning started in Kalimantan in the 1990s, and was transferred to other parts of the country like Riau and Palembang.
But as a peatland expert himself, Bambang warns that there is no sound scientific basis for draining and burning peatlands, and that the “bad science” of the ‘90s must be stopped.
“Drying out peatlands is the first mistake, since about 95% of peat is water,” he said in an interview at the dialogue. “You can see the effects of this in places like Banjarmasin and Pontianak, which never had floods in the past, but now when it rains these cities are inundated.”
He said that businesses still using burning as a method to clear land must be held accountable to government regulations.
“These businesses say, ‘But I pay tax, I employ people’. These kinds of battles go on. But I say to them, ‘If you were conducting your business in the proper way, we wouldn’t have seen the kinds of fires we had in 2015’.”
Forestry cannot be regarded as an issue for foresters alone.
Tiur Rumondang, Director of Indonesia Operations for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said that burning is absolutely banned for companies aiming to comply with its standards and criteria.
“It’s what we call ‘major non-compliance’. If a company did this, we would consider it a major violation,” she said.
Iman Santoso from the Indonesian Forestry Business Association (APHI) said the responsibility of stopping fires extends from companies and smallholders to all stakeholders involved in and affected by forestry and land-use decisions.
“Forestry cannot be regarded as an issue for foresters alone. Just as security cannot be considered solely the responsibility of the army, but as a task for the entire nation,” he said.
“That’s why the Indonesian Forestry Business Association is happy to be finally implementing a landscape approach to optimize land use in landscapes that have multiple uses – not just for pulp and paper, not just for palm oil, but for all local crops that already exist there. As a consequence, we need to involve multiple actors, multiple disciplines and multiple sectors in finding solutions.”
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