Indonesia: Villagers use banana leaves to put out forest fires
31 August 2002
Villagers in Kalimantanhave their own way to cope with the fires that ravage their forests and farmlandannually. In spite of the absence of fire extinguishers and fire trucks, theyhave a simple technique to stay at home surrounded by fire.
Parents and their childrenfighting flames simply by using banana leaves and a bucket of water is a commonsight in villages along the trans-Kalimantan highway, particularly the sectionbetween Palang Pisau regency and Palangka Raya, the capital of CentralKalimantan.
Living in sparsesettlements consisting of thatch huts along the road, local people — mostlymade up of families of five — have a unique way of dealing with the forest andground fires now plaguing the region.
As fire swiftly approachestheir homes, instead of fleeing, children approach the flames and put them outby thrashing them with banana leaves and spraying water, which sometimes istaken from wells 20 meters to 50 meters away.
Interestingly, none of thevillagers in near forested areas have been evacuated. Despite the presence ofhot spots around their settlements, they choose to remain and keep guard againstfire, with their palms as an effective cover against the suffocating smoke.
“There has been noevacuation because of the fires,” confirmed Dehen Binti, executivesecretary of South Kalimantan’s regional coordinating board of the IndonesianForest Society, who has been engaged in forestry affairs since 1963.
The inhabitants also haveother ways of warding off fire. Most farmers along the sides of the 90-km routehave cleaned the areas around their homes and made 50-centimeter deep ditches toprevent fires from encroaching. Under normal conditions, it takes less than fourhours to travel from Banjarmasin to Palangka Raya, but with forests ablaze itnow takes 1.5 hours longer due to poor visibility caused by thick smoke.
The Palang Pisau-PalangkaRaya section is the worst hit, with smoke blown in by strong winds blanketingthe route. “The flames may reach the asphalt road so drivers must becautious by slowing down, closing their car windows and usingair-conditioning,” said Misnawati, a Banjarmasin education official.
According to her,visibility during the daytime last week was no more than five meters. “Whenwe went into the thick smoke, it looked as though we were passing black cloudsin the sky,” said Misnawati, who had just returned from Sampit.
While the 90-m section ofroad about 200 km from Banjarmasin is the darkest part of the highway, makingthe local people suffer most, Palangka Raya is also the most smoke-prone areacompared with the other cities in Central or South Kalimantan. Geographically,it is in the middle of peatland, areas of dry grass and various plants that arevulnerable to fire.
People in Banger regency,South Kalimantan, also fight off the flames with banana leaves and water. Theregency has almost 20 km of peatland that is routinely a victim to fire duringthe dry season. “We cut off lots of banana leaves when the flames arearound us,” said Banjar farmer Burhani.
Living with his family inthe peat area, he told The Jakarta Post that he never used a mask no matter howdense the smoke got. “My hand or an old towel will do,” he remarked,adding that the haze was a seasonal phenomenon and his family was no stranger toencroaching fires.
Dehen Binti, upon hisreturn from Central Kalimantan, denied that forest fires were the source of thethick smoke disrupting traffic in the region.
“No forest trees havebeen burned in this year’s dry season there,” he said.
The thousands of hotspots, according to him, are smoldering shrubs and bushes in CentralKalimantan’s vast peatland.
“Their roots are nowhot and consumed by fire so that a month of rain is needed to extinguish theembers thoroughly,” explained Dehen Binti.
Based on the ForestSociety’s research, none of the pristine, primary, secondary and concessionaireforests have caught fire. “Some of them were actually devastated in theforest disaster of 1997,” he confirmed.
Fires in some areas,particularly peatland, have become routine since the 1970s, when the governmentissued concessions, followed by illegal logging in the 1980s.
He admitted that it wasdifficult to find the parties responsible for such forest tragedies, for whichhumans had indeed been responsible.
Unsure of the presence ofany pattern to solve the problem, he added that the maximum effort normally madewas intensifying patrols in uninhabited areas to prevent fires from spreading,which required extra funds.
By Umi Sriwahyuni, TheJakarta Post, Banjarmasin Source: The Jakarta Post,31 August 2002