Villagers learn to fight forest fires

Villagers learn to fight forest fires

24 June 2008

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Indonesia — The lingering rainy season this year may mean people haveforgotten the big problems triggered by forest fires. But the problem is freshin the mind of Asron.

The 45-year-old recently attended a forest fire awareness training program inTerawan village of Seruyan regency, Central Kalimantan.

“I come from a village behind this club house,” he said, referringto an Agro Group’s building which is sandwiched between leafy palm oilplantation to the west and sparse forest to the east.

Asron was one out of 200 people taking part in the program jointly organizedby the Agro Group, WWF Indonesia, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS),Care International, Indonesian Council for Palm Oil (DMSI), Association ofIndonesian and Malaysian Palm Oil Investors (AIPIMI) and Forestry Ministry’sNatural Resources Conservation Board (BKSDA).

Most of the participants live around forests or palm oil plantations inSeruyan and Kotawaringin Timur regencies, Central Kalimantan.

“It’s still rainy season, but we’ve been reminded that sooner or laterthe dry season will come. That’s the time when fires are prone to happen,”he said.

Forest fires have turned into an annual disaster across the archipelago,mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, with the most severe onesoccuring in 1982-83, 1987, 1991, 1994 and 1997-98.

Forest fires in 1997-98 alone were estimated to have ravaged about 8 millionhectares of forest with a total estimated economic loss of US$3 billion.

But the losses do not stop there. The fires also cause health problems,disrupted air and sea transportation, bring haze to neighboring countries, suchas Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and damagebiodiversity.

The above countries have repeatedly protested Indonesia over the hazeengulfing parts of its areas disrupting their air and sea transportation.

During the peak of these forest fires, the media reported that in severalcities in Sumatra and Kalimantan many local people suffered from respiratorydiseases, forcing the local governments to distribute masks and ban people fromgoing outside their houses.

“It is to help prevent such occurrences that we organize the training,”said Sanjay Upasena, the director of sustainability at Argo Group subsidiaryAgro Indomas.

He said the training was aimed at increasing awareness and the involvement ofthe general public, especially locals, in preventing and tackling forest fires.

The training, he said, is also part of his company’s corporate socialresponsibility.

“This training is not just a day to observe the environment. We need toremind people … that forest fires can cause big problems and have to beprevented,” Sanjay said.

The group has also designed a number of environmental and social programs.

“Such programs are particularly important considering the CentralKalimantan province is one of the main hot spots in this country,” he said.

According to data from the WWF, during the period of 1997 to 2006 most of thecountry’s hot spots were located in five provinces. The five provinces areCentral Kalimantan, the highest with 111,803 hot spots, followed by Riau with87,572 hot spots, then South Sumatra with 68,129 hot spots, West Kalimantan with66,691 hot spots and East Kalimantan with 52,644 hot spots.

The conservation group says that last year, the hot spots dropped by about 78percent, but mostly due to natural factors such as rain. This year, the rainyseason still continues in June, the time when the dry season should have alreadystarted.

Bahrun, a native of Kalimantan’s Dayak tribe who lives in Terawan village ofSeruyan regency in Central Kalimantan, said the rainy season would linger longerthis year.

“I can assure you that as I’ve noticed white mushrooms still growing onthe roots along the riverbanks here. They are the harbinger of rainy seasons,”he said.

“But the white mushrooms will be gone soon. That will be the time whenthe dry season finally comes. It’s the time that we should be vigilant as theforests here are easily razed by fire,” he said.

He said he felt happy taking part in the training program and vowed that hewould do his best to detect, prevent and tackle forest fires around the village.

“As an ordinary person, I can inform the companies operating around hereor the firefighters if I see a fire. Early information will help prevent thefire from spreading.”

Considering that forest fires are mostly man-made disasters, people’sparticipation is crucial.

At the training, Seruyan Regent Darwan Ali and Kotawaringin Timur RegentWahyudi K. Anwar both underlined the importance of such participation.

“Companies alone can not detect all fires. You need to cooperate withlocals to detect fires as early as possible so that firefighters can tackle them,”Darwan Ali said.

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