Indonesia turns to fish farming to help fight blaze

Indonesia turns to fish farming to help fight blaze

4 August 2009

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Indonesia — Reeling in a tilapia from the murky pond in front of him, farmer H. Baso Intang proclaimed triumphantly: “These fish provide 5 million rupiah (RM1,800) in extra income for each family here every year.”

The pond is in a sprawling facility in Indonesia’s Muaro Jambi Regency, which is now dotted with 2,399 other ponds stocked with tilapia, a fish popular on dinner tables here.

Each pond yields up to 2,500 fish a year.

The money made from selling the fish is a lifeline for families here, who have left behind their traditional livelihood of slash-and-burn farming for fish rearing.

The authorities hope that the blossoming industry in this sleepy regency with a population of 234,000 can be replicated across fire-prone Jambi province and the rest of the country.

Muaro Jambi, occupying a tenth of Jambi on Sumatra Island, is an epicentre of the annual fires set to the bush as part of seasonal land clearing.

This practice of razing the land, which also takes place in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, is what gives rise to the smoky haze that has often choked Indonesia and neighbouring countries over the past decade.

The region — primarily Indonesia — has lost US$9 billion (RM32 billion) in tourism revenue and flights delayed or cancelled because of poor visibility.

The people, especially those already with respiratory ailments, have suffered health problems too, pointed out Burhanuddin Mahir, a local legislative head.

But Indonesia’s defence has consistently been that it lacks the money and technical expertise to prevent or control the fires across its vast archipelago.

Jambi Governor Zulkifli Nurdin told The Straits Times that slash-and-burn farming is practised out of necessity. It is a cheaper way for poor farmers to clear the land for planting.

To make things worse, the country’s peatland releases carbon dioxide as it dries out. When set alight in the dry season, thick smoky plumes result.

The chief of the Jambi Natural Resources Conservation Centre, Didy Wurdjanto, said local officials have found it difficult to convince farmers to stop the burning, especially when they cannot afford to buy machines to clear the land.

Equipment such as excavators and tractors can cost up to 1 billion rupiah, and the typical small-scale farmer makes at most only 2 million rupiah a year, said Afdhal Mahyuddin, a communications officer of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) in Riau, another fire-prone area in Sumatra.

In Jambi, the local government is attempting to bridge this gap.

Intang, who is also a local fish fry distributor, said 60 per cent of the equipment costs needed to set up his fish farming facility came from the government.

Funding aside, the government also runs training workshops to wean farmers from slash-and-burn farming.

Governor Nurdin believes that on top of these initiatives, developing the province’s other industries in palm oil and coal, and sourcing avenues for export, are also key to reducing the risk of fires.

Economic growth in Jambi hit 7.16 per cent last year, up from 4.2 per cent nine years ago, driven primarily by the burgeoning oil palm, rubber and fishery industries, he said.

In the regency of Muaro Jambi alone, 92,000ha of land now sits under oil palm plantations; 59,000ha has been given over to rubber plantations and 150,000ha to fishery industries.

The agricultural sector contributed more than 79 billion rupiah — a third of the regency’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007.

This is a positive step in addressing the poverty gap that stymies many farmers in Indonesia, said Dr Tobias Axelsson of the department of economic history at Lund University, Sweden.

“It goes back to the strategy of increasing the people’s income…Getting them out of the poverty trap is important,” he said.

This involves forging new, alternative careers for them.

“If the government helps bring in new technology and knowledge, a new path is created the people can go down, increasing the chances for more sustainable and long-term impact,” Axelsson said.

In tandem with the improved economy, the number of hot spots in Jambi has gone down by 23 per cent in the past two years, from a peak of 2,150 hot spots in 2006, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) said.

This year, the situation is back under the microscope, as Indonesia wrestles against an extended dry spell typical of an El Nino weather pattern.

Dry spells raise the flag for forest fires.

Singapore is playing a role to keep the haze in check through a now two-year-old, S$1 million (RM2.4 million) collaboration with Jambi.

The plan comprises nine programmes designed to help the provincial government prevent or mitigate the fires. These include efforts to teach farmers zero-burning practices and to train local officials to interpret satellite pictures so that they can monitor hot spots.

Last week, Singapore Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim was in Jambi to hand over three air and weather monitoring stations funded by Singapore. These will enable speedier detection of fires and faster action to prevent haze.  Muaro Jambi is Indonesia’s star haze-prevention project. When The Straits Times visited it at the height of the haze season last week, the air was clear and free of the tell-tale acrid smell of burning.

But challenges remain.

WWF’s Mahyuddin noted that while Indonesia has been effective in punishing small-scale landowners, companies with larger land concessions continue to get away with it.

Environmental groups say at least 70 per cent of Sumatra’s forest fires come from land owned by plantation and paper-pulp companies.

But despite calls on Jakarta to impose stiffer penalties, few companies are prosecuted because of a lack of evidence.

Environmentalists have also long alleged collusion and corruption between government officials and the companies.

Ultimately, what Singapore and its neighbours in the region hope is that Indonesia will take greater ownership of the issue, said Joseph Hui, director-general of the environmental protection division at NEA, which has played a key role in coordinating efforts between Singapore and Jambi.

“At the end of it all, what we are doing in Jambi is a small part of the entire region.”

To see any impact on fighting the haze, Indonesia will have to take greater ownership and start similar initiatives elsewhere, he said.

“If everyone behaves responsibly, things will improve. It is more beneficial to them than anyone else because they are the people most affected,” he said.

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