Indonesia forest fires: has this Sumatran village got the solution

 Indonesia forest fires: has this Sumatran village got the solution

14 September 2016

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Indonesia —   Fires have returned once again to the forests and peatlands of Riau province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The annual environmental disaster devastates millions of hectares (pdf) in the archipelago and has been linked to the clearing of forest and peatland for oil palm and paper pulp plantations.

Last year south-east Asia experienced one of the worst forest fire outbreaks in the region’s history. A thick, acrid smoke covered large areas of Indonesia and neighbouring countries, and more than 500,000 cases of acute respiratory tract infections were reported between July and October 2015.

Riau is often one of the hardest hit by the fires, due in part to its high concentration of peatland. Dry peatland is like gasoline for fires, says Woro Supartinah, coordinator of the NGO Riau Forest Rescue Network which monitors fires in the region. Yet Dosan, a small village in the province surrounded by palm plantations, has not recorded a single fire since 2012, according to those who live there, thanks to a concerted local effort to tackle the problem. The question is whether such success can be replicated.

Undoing the damage

In 2003, the regional government began a poverty-alleviation programme, giving three hectare plots of land to smallholders – including those in Dosan – to plant oil palms. On receipt of the land, the villagers drained the peat to make the land more productive by dissecting it with a labyrinth of canals. And then the land started to burn.

Six years later, after a particularly destructive fire ravaged 11 hectares around Dosan, a farmers’ collective known as Cooperative Bungo Tanjung launched a programme to protect peatland, prevent fires and promote better cultivation practices.

Most significantly, the programme promotes canal blocking. “We build the dams to keep the level of the water stable at a minimum of 30cm. At this level, palm oil can grow but it is humid enough to avoid fires,” explains Pak Dahlan, a senior farmer in the village. Although it is relatively simple to build the dams, the 20m Indonesian rupiahs (£1,150) that each costs – mainly thanks to the price of cement – is a handicap to scaling up.

“The community pays for the dams,” says Dahlan, who adds that the village is trying to raise money to increase the number of dams from 13 to at least 25. As part of their money-raising efforts, the cooperative organises festivals and gatherings where they ask for donations.

In addition to the dams, the Dosan smallholders have made a common agreement to stop the practice of slash-and-burn. The technique, widely used in Indonesia to clear forest quickly and cheaply, significantly increases the risk of uncontrolled fires. While slash-and-burn is illegal under Indonesian law, there is an exemption for smallholders which Dosan’s smallholders are urged to ignore.

The final core part of the fire-prevention project is the Masyarakat Peduli Api, a community-based firefighter unit funded by the Indonesian government and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that patrols Dosan several times a day.

Beyond Dosan

In addition to the funding from the government and UNEP, a number of local NGOs are supporting Dosan in its efforts to stop forest fires. Perkumpulan Elang, a conservation and community development NGO in Riau, for example, has provided smallholders with the knowledge to build the dams and keep the water level stable in the peatlands.

Other villages are now starting to follow Dosan’s example. In Jatibaru, located 40km from Dosan, villagers started to dam the canal which runs through their oil palm plots earlier this year.

“We have problems with fires every year. Three years ago there was a big fire and we had a warning from government saying […] that if any other fires happened they would arrest whoever was responsible,” says Maman, a community leader. He has supervised the construction of eight dams built since January, but says they are not enough to protect the whole village.

Dosan, which is not part of a bigger concession, sets an example for larger palm oil producing regions, says Adhy Prayitno, a researcher at the Center for Disaster Studies at the University of Riau. However, while the principle of blocking canals can be replicated, each place has unique requirements so the design of solutions must be adapted to suit local hydrology characteristics, he added.

Dosan people know the village and their land inside out, says Prayitno: “Companies can learn from this. They have to build a mutual relationship with local communities and give them more opportunities to participate in the [palm oil] supply chain.”

However, Rachel Carmenta, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research, says the current flurry of forest fire prevention schemes in Riau – both through the government’s Peatland Restoration Agency as well as through communities such as Dosan – need to take stock of past lessons. “They are operating largely in the absence of a systematic evidence base”, she says.

In addition, evidence suggests the most effective fire management interventions – such as peatland rewetting – are also the most controversial, she says, and deploying these “will therefore require significant negotiation and stakeholder dialogue to bring about consensus, in turn requiring expertise, money and time – as well as monitoring.”

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