A perfect storm: Study of peat fire mitigation sheds light on complex global challenge

Scientists forewarn that equitable solutions must be found
Haze from forest fires drifts over the landscape in this archive picture taken in Riau, Indonesia. CIFOR/Aulia Erlangga

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An increasing awareness of the repercussions of large-scale fires has amplified concerns globally about climate change amid dire warnings from scientists about the future health of the planet, its biodiversity and its human population.

Researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who have cautioned about the consequences of fires for years, recognize that the conditions that produce them are here to stay. They cite so-called fire weather – which involves less humidity, higher temperatures, less rainfall and increased winds – as the cause.

New interventions are under development to address these enormous challenges.

An international team of researchers led by Rachel Carmenta, a CIFOR associate scientist and a lecturer at Britain’s University of East Anglia, and developed with Jacob Phelps at Lancaster University and Aiora Zabala at the University of Cambridge, reviewed the effectiveness of a program in Indonesia where peatlands are drained and burned for agricultural expansion, mainly to plant oil palm trees.

Peatlands exposed to this activity become highly combustible and produce vast amounts of planet warming gases when they burn. Peat fires contrast with fires that ignite vegetation on mineral soils, because the peat substrate itself burns.

In 2015, massive fires burned uncontrollably for long periods of time in peatlands on the island of Sumatra due to dry conditions, exacerbated by an El Nino weather system. An estimated 100,000 people died prematurely, while countless others were hospitalized or developed related health problems.

Economic costs of the fires were estimated by the World Bank to be $16 billion, while daily emissions from Indonesia’s fires in one month that year exceeded the emissions generated by the entire U.S. economy.

If Indonesia could stop the fires it would meet its stated target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by the year 2030, the bank said in a report.

Findings of the paper by Carmenta and colleagues published in the journal Global Environmental Change, offer insights into some of the victories and pitfalls involved in an initiative designed to prevent peat fires.

To gain perspective into how interventions incorporating bundles of incentives and deterrents work, the research team examined the impact of the Fire Free Village program, a private-sector payments for ecosystem services initiative supported by the government in the Indonesian province of Riau on the island of Sumatra.

It was designed to discourage the use of fire to clear land. Although traditionally fire was used on mineral soils in age-old agricultural practices without leading to uncontrollable wildfires, nowadays it is used by a multitude of different land users in new frontiers – including Indonesia’s peatlands, where it is extremely difficult to manage and contain.

“Our research corroborates earlier work where we showed that fire mitigation demands targeted policy and one-size-fits-all will not work,” Carmenta said.

“For example, different combinations of sanctions and rewards are needed, depending on the level of fire risk within the landscape. We learned that a combination of incentives and deterrents were effective at reducing burning, but our findings indicate that people were more responsive to sanctions than they were to rewards, which raised concerns about equity.”

The Fire Free Village program was launched in 2014 in 10 villages by a large pulp and paper agri-business in partnership with the local state government. The goal was to stop the burning of adjoining plantation lands by offering conditional incentives, which included providing machinery for clearing, seeds, fertilizers and funding for a community project each year.


Fires set on neighboring lands are a threat to plantation investments as they can spread into the industrial-scale operations, with economic implications for the company.

The area was once a carbon-dense forest landscape, but beginning in around 1990, large industrial-scale acacia pulpwood plantations began to move in, soon followed by oil palm.

Among the challenges in the region are overlapping land claims among national and provincial governments, companies, investors and communities, often with deep political and financial interests in lucrative oil palm production, alongside weak law enforcement, Carmenta said. The complexity of fire dynamics also make it difficult to assign culpability.

Deterrents were also introduced. They included monitoring air quality, educational awareness-raising on the dangers of fire to health and hiring a local fire warden. Program representatives were joined by army officials and police officers when the program was introduced to local communities, which helped raise awareness about the illegality of peat fires.

Villages – where local residents typically work in the local palm industry – own their own oil palm or rubber plots or fish, and received payments that were contingent on either a fire free or a minimum burnt area outcome. Rewards are conditional on verified performance, which is considered an essential element of idealized payments for ecosystem services design, Carmenta said.

“Our data indicate that the reward wasn’t an influential condition for success, either alone or in combination with other features of the program,” she added. “Although payments were intended as an alternative to enforcement, they had little impact over other drivers of behavior and only fear of sanctions and concerns for health had an impact.”

Other research has shown the salience of health burdens to diverse stakeholders with little else in common and suggests that using a language centered on health – rather than carbon – could be a more powerful catalyst for change, she said.

To reach their findings, scientists used a two-step quantitative comparative analysis to measure the relative impact of the incentives and deterrents.

A range of factors come into play, which can neutralize both incentives and deterrents, including the influence of absentee land managers who do not live in the region and therefore remain unaffected with little incentive to opt into the program, Carmenta said.

The aims of the Fire Free Village program present challenges to different stakeholders that depend on fire-based land clearance because they lack equipment to prepare land for agriculture by any other means, Carmenta said.

Further, land tenure ambiguities promote fire-based land clearance, since it is much less innocuous to light a fire, than to spend time clearing the field mechanically.

“Climate conditions, immigration, global demand for oil palm, carbon-dense peat substrate which burns, an increase in fire weather make the situation very challenging,” Carmenta said. Add those conditions to the frontier nature of the peatlands in this area, where diverse stakeholders drain peatlands, using the land management practices they know are cheap and affordable and the problems begin.

“While sanctions and the ‘stick’ may be effective, we need to think about designing better carrots as incentives,” Carmenta said.

“Better carrots would distinguish between these different types of actors, some of them are small scale farmers living on the land, some are more capitalized, they live elsewhere so the incentive doesn’t impact them, neither do the burdens when the peat burns.”

As the international community frets about the impact of climate change, the Fire Free Village program offers an example of an intervention. The scientists found that there are many mitigating factors and nuances that demand targeted approaches, and more work to ensure risk reduction programs do not make the most marginalized communities more vulnerable.

“An analysis of the village program shows that fears of health problems and sanctions work to prevent peat fires, but that better carrots must be designed because it’s not equitable to rely on sanctions and enforcement when people don’t have alternatives to fire,” Carmenta said.

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