In July, hundreds of fire hotspots were detected in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, causing haze that disrupted flights in and out of the airport in the provincial capital.
The local forest fire brigade worked day and night to put out the fires, which occurred on the dry peatlands after they were drained for agricultural production during a period of drought.
Recently, a delegation from the Republic of Congo including Arlette Soudan-Nonault, the country’s minister of tourism and environment, were toured around the area, where they observed Indonesia’s system for preventing and fighting forest and peatland fires.
Soudan-Nonault participated in demonstrations, helping to douse fires using the available equipment, which included hoses and a backpack pump fire extinguisher.
The trip was part of a three-day visit to showcase sustainable peatland management ahead of the launch of the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC) in Jakarta on Oct. 30.
The center is jointly coordinated by Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), UN Environment and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
“I have been able to witness myself some of the things that you have learned going through these challenges,” said Soudan-Nonault adding that she plans to incorporate Indonesia’s experience to ensure the recently discovered peatland area is managed sustainably.
In West Kalimantan, fire engines are maintained and readied, fire fighters and volunteers with state-of-the-art equipment are trained to swiftly put out fires. In drought season, the forest fire brigade is on standby.
The Pontianak area operations unit, located in the suburbs of the city, houses not only fire fighting equipment but is also an integrated environmental education facility. The complex is used for to train fire fighters and as a storage warehouse.
Demonstration plots to demonstrate zero-burning agriculture techniques and liquid smoke production add to the scope of the training. Forest litter is collected to reduce fire danger and transformed into liquid smoke or “wood vinegar” to be used as disinfectants on farms, feed additives and as non-toxic organic pesticide.
Pak Slamet Raharjo is a farmer from Rasau Jaya village in West Kalimantan who received training from the Pontianak area fire fighting operations unit.
“I used to burn before planting, but now after receiving training to produce compost fertilizers, my land is actually much better for planting,” Raharjo said, referring to the traditional practice of swidden, also known as slash and burn agriculture.
When burned, the soil is fertile only once, then it degrades. But by mixing it with manure and compost, we have better crops.”
LEARNING FROM PAST MISTAKES
The Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) share the peatland area in the Congo Basin, which was discovered in 2017, and both countries have agreed to jointly manage the area.
The Cuvette Centrale peatlands potentially store the equivalent of three year’s worth of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions.
Simon Lewis, a professor with Britain’s University of Leeds, who co-led the UK-Congolese research team that discovered the vast peatlands, estimated that the area is the single largest peatland complex in the tropics. He said the situation there is quite different compared to Indonesia,.
The Congo Basin peatlands benefit from their remoteness, which aids their protection –making it an expensive enterprise to exploit them for natural resources, Lewis said.
“They’re very, very far from markets so even of you’re producing products from those lands for export, it will be incredibly expensive to extract and take them to market,” he said “They are thousands of miles from the coast, it’s very difficult to get there.”
The peatlands are also a treasure trove of biodiversity, Lewis said, adding that the peatland area has “some of the highest concentration of gorillas and elephants in the world. In a modern world where we see the benefit of the colossal amount of carbon, two to three years worth of all fossil fuel emissions, all land use emissions for the entire globe are locked up in the peat there.”
Soudan-Nonault said that from her perspective, what immediately needs to be done is a mapping of the area. “Once mapping is done, we need to move toward sustainable peatland management. We will build on the Indonesian experience,” she said.
“We know that it will be a disaster to drain the peatlands, we know that large scale agricultural conversion will dry up the peatland. We know that slash and burn (swidden) cultivation is not good,” she added.
Although the Congo Basin peatlands have recently been making news headlines, the ecosystem is not new to the indigenous people living around the area.
Carine Nzimba Zere lives in the peatlands in Brazzaville, the capital of DRC. She said the “indigenous people have a special relationship with the environment. Protecting the peatlands also protects our lives because we live in the forest and it is very important for us to conserve.”
Nzimba Zere is the President of Association Debout Femmes Autochtones Du Congo (ADFAC), a non-governmental organization (NGO) promoting the rights of indigenous people. She joined the Congo delegation to discover how people in Indonesia protect the peatlands. “It will be very useful to us to learn from your experience,” she said.
The role of indigenous people in protecting the forest is essential and is often said to be on the front lines of nature conservation.
Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, who attended the ITPC launch in Jakarta, said: “There are two huge economic opportunities for peatlands: tourism and better agricultural practices, so farmers can get more out of their land and there is less reason to open virgin forests.”
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