Indonesia’s fiery scourge

Indonesia’s fiery scourge

15 August 2005


Years of mismanagement have turned large tracts of peatland forests in Indonesia into partial coalmines that light up readily – with far-reaching consequences. TAN CHENG LI and HILARY CHIEW looks at a perennial problem that has been smouldering for the past two decades. 

Better management of peat swamp forest – that is the most effective way to overcome smoky plumes that have become an annual scourge in the region. 

Peat swamp forest or peatland – highly prone to fires and once ablaze extremely difficult to douse – are being cleared and drained by both subsistence farmers and plantation companies in Indonesia, a result of land-use policy that encourages conversion of forest into plantations, especially for oil palm and industrial timber. 

The result: more widespread and intense fires since 1980. The problem is exacerbated by the country’s large cache – some 25 million ha – of peat swamp forest, says Nyoman Suryadiputra, technical director of Wetlands International Asia-Pacific, based in Bogor, Java. “Indonesia has a lot of peatland. So more fires are likely if these lands are not protected and the degraded sites are notrehabilitated.” 

Already, years of mismanagement have halved the area of peatland and made whatever is left vulnerable to flames. Untouched peatland are naturally resistant to fires due to their high water tables. But canals – dug first by loggers to float logs out and then by plantation workers to control the ground water table to enable cultivation – have drained the forest, and left them parched and prone to fires. 

“Once peat soil is drained, the rotting organic material acts like a wick. Conflicting land use brought about by massive agricultural projects is turning large tracts of peatland into open, semi-coalmines that combust easily,” says T.Y. Chee, manager of the Global Environment Centre (GEC). 

The Asean group of countries has wised up to the idea that sustainable management of peatland will help combat the annual haze, and thus embarked on the Asean Peatland Management Initiative in 2003. The programme, with technical support provided by the GEC, requires each country to develop national plans on sustainable use of peatland. Nyoman reveals that Indonesia only started work on drafting a plan last month. 

Silhouette of an Indonesian firefighter as he walks through a burning peatland in Rokan Hilir, Riau, Sumatra. Forest and bush fires, set by farmers and plantation owners to clear land, have been burning in Borneo and Sumatra for months.

But will this plan actually help? After all, international donor agencies from Japan, Canada, Germany, the European Union and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have poured millions of dollars into the republic to improve its forest fire management since the destructive inferno of 1982/1983 and yet, blazes continue to raze the land each year. The money went into projects on fire danger rating, maps of fire-prone areas, fire detection and monitoring systems, fire-fighting training and equipment, drafting of policies and promotion of zero-burning techniques, among others. The improved monitoring system – hotspots in Sumatra were detected in April – also did little to curb fires from spreading. 

At the regional level, much resources have gone into action plans to combat the haze since 1995, culminating with the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002. Parties of the agreement must prevent and monitor haze pollution, control fires by developing early warning systems, conduct research, provide mutual assistance and take legal and administrative measures to implement their obligations. 

Village youths walking on a casava field as wildfire is seen burning in the background in Minas, Riau province, Sumatra. The massive fires in Indonesia have ravaged thousands of hectares of land and covered parts of Malaysia in thick, noxious haze.

It entered into force last November after the ratification of six countries: Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. Ironically, Indonesia has not ratified the treaty – which makes a mockery of the whole exercise. 

This kind of agreement, however, means little to village farmers who are ignorant of its existence. “It is a matter of livelihood. You cannot ask them to protect the forest when their stomachs are empty,” says Nyoman. Likewise, he adds, the outcome of projects conducted by donor agencies failed to reach local communities. 

He believes projects on the ground, especially those that provide villagers with an alternative to farming peat land, will be more effective. “Riau province alone has more than half (4.6 million ha) of the 7 million ha of peatland found in Sumatra. So there will always be fires unless assistance go directly to the communities.” 

With funds from the Canadian Government, Wetlands International has carried out such projects in central Kalimantan and southern Sumatra. The group works with villagers to block canals; this not only stems further drainage of peatland but also enables fish cultivation. In one innovative scheme, villagers are given working capital to start small businesses such as raising livestock, in return for protecting the forest and not razing it. 

Efforts to assist the farmers are crucial; fingers point at them as the culprits for this year’s flames. Masnelly Yarti Hilman, a deputy minister in the Ministry of Environment, says 30% of the Sumatran fires are in forests and 70% in farms. Of the latter, 70% are in privately owned farms and only 30% in plantations. Farmers burn peatland as the resulting ash helps lower the soil acidity and make it suitable for farming. Such ingrained habits persist. Dr Bambang Hero Saharjo, a forest fire management scientist, says villagers claim to understand the hazards of fires and agree to stop burning during talks. “But when we return to the village two days later, we find even more fires.” 

Furthermore, the degradation of the Indonesian peatland is so extensive that rehabilitation work will be tough. Just along one river in southern Sumatra, there are 250 canals; Nyoman’s group has so far blocked only eight. 

For Chee, it is time that plantation companies acknowledge the far-reaching impact of their operations, and help overcome the problem of desiccating peatland. He urges them to invest in a holistic water management regime which includes blocking all the drainage outlets beyond their estates. 

In other words, stop the unnecessary draining.


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