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Fire and haze: Community action

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How volunteers, researchers and communities are making a difference.

Residents of Pekanbaru in Riau, Indonesia, have not forgotten the devastating fires and haze that darkened their skies for months over 2014-2015.

“We were surrounded by that suffocating smoke, it was hard for us to breathe,” says Zuli ‘Lulu’ Laili Isnaini, who joined volunteer relief efforts during the crisis.

“The greatest number of victims was found among pregnant women, children and the elderly. A number of schoolchildren died at that time.”

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Lulu, who now works for the Disaster Studies Center at the University of Riau, and other community members on the frontline of efforts to prevent fire and haze shared their perspectives at a national policy dialogue in Pekanbaru last month, hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in collaboration with the University of Riau, also supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, News and Agroforestry (FTA).

While small communities are sometimes blamed by bigger players for their role in burning land and forests, they are also making an important difference in preventing future disaster. Volunteer fire patrols, communal canal-blocking initiatives to re-wet peatlands and campaigns to change mindsets through education are just some of the steps being taking at the local level to ensure a fire-free future.

Read more: 

By Catriona Croft-Cusworth, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

For more information on this topic, please contact Herry Purnomo at [email protected].


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was supported by the KNOWFOR program from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).

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  • Fire and haze in Indonesia: What’s being done on the ground to prevent future disasters?

Fire and haze in Indonesia: What’s being done on the ground to prevent future disasters?

Firefighters put out a fire spreading in Sebangau national park, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Haze from forest fires blankets the landscape in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

In Indonesia, few have forgotten the devastating peatland fires and suffocating haze that afflicted the greater region for several months over 2014-2015.

Agricultural fires across Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua at that time claimed millions of hectares of land and tens of thousands of lives, as toxic smoke spread across the country, reaching as far as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo responded by placing a total nationwide ban on the clearing or burning of peatlands, and formed the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to replenish damaged land.

But for this complex issue involving multiple stakeholders — from government agencies to researchers, multinational companies to smallholder farmers and communities — work on the ground to prevent future disaster is still just beginning.

More than 300 representatives from various sectors came together to discuss ways to strengthen local laws and learn from ground-level experience at a national policy dialogue in Pekanbaru last month, hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in collaboration with the University of Riau, and supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

The dialogue on Laws and Best Practices for Reducing Fire and Haze invited participants to share both challenges and success stories in breaking the dangerous annual cycle.

Read more: Fighting fires with academic narrative

LAW OF THE LAND

Army officers and firefighters try to extinguish fires in peatland in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

The president’s decree on peatlands set the tone nationally for a change in land management practices. But research has found that local laws — issued at the provincial, regency or city level — can have even greater impact in reducing the risk of disaster.

Yulwiriawati Moesa, Head of the Riau Forestry and Environment Agency, reminded participants in the dialogue of a provincial regulation issued last year on the protection and management of peatlands, and said work was ongoing to fully implement it on the ground.

Nonetheless, she praised efforts that have so far prevented another major disaster.

“The province of Riau has managed to overcome the threat of a fire and haze disaster these past two years, after 18 years in shackles,” she said in her opening remarks.

FTA scientist Herry Purnomo recommended that any new legislation in the province or elsewhere should be based on scientific evidence and support community-level action for fire prevention and land restoration.

“We are happy that our research outputs can be used by all stakeholders to inform public debate, policies, regulations and best practices,” he said.

Watch: Fire and haze: Laws and regulations

COMMUNITY ACTION

Effective work is being carried out at the ground level by local people, including farmers, landowners and volunteer fire fighters.

Rozi, head of the Fire Awareness Community (MPA) in Dompas village, Bengkalis regency, leads regular patrols to catch fires before they burn out of control, and works together with his community to re-green and re-wet degraded peatlands, including by blocking canals to allow water to return to the land.

He regularly catches small fires started by cigarette butts or mosquito coils, particularly in the dry season.

Firefighters put out a fire spreading in Sebangau national park, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

“When we go on patrol, we don’t get paid,” he said on the sidelines of the dialogue. “But in villages where there are no patrols, there’s sure to be fire.”

“It’s hard to convince others to join the patrols because it means they can’t take on other work that day, they don’t get paid, and then they can’t feed their families. Economic issues are our main obstacles,” he added.

Ongoing work in collaboration with CIFOR scientists is bringing water back to dry peatlands by blocking canals that were dug to drain them in the first place. The practice of draining and burning peatlands to clear land for agriculture is a major cause of deforestation, land degradation and fires in Riau.

THE BUSINESS OF BURNING

Recent decades have seen millions of hectares of peatlands converted to agricultural land, often for plantations of cash crops such as oil palm. The most cost-effective method to clear large areas of peatland is by burning, but as the 2014-2015 crisis shows, it cannot be considered a sustainable option.

Bambang Setiadi from Indonesia’s National Research Council said the damaging practice of peatland burning started in Kalimantan in the 1990s, and was transferred to other parts of the country like Riau and Palembang.

But as a peatland expert himself, Bambang warns that there is no sound scientific basis for draining and burning peatlands, and that the “bad science” of the 1990s must be stopped.

“Drying out peatlands is the first mistake, since about 95 percent of peat is water,” he said in an interview at the dialogue. “You can see the effects of this in places like Banjarmasin and Pontianak, which never had floods in the past, but now when it rains these cities are inundated.”

He said that businesses still using burning as a method to clear land must be held accountable to government regulations.

“These businesses say, ‘But I pay tax, I employ people’. These kinds of battles go on. But I say to them, ‘If you were conducting your business in the proper way, we wouldn’t have seen the kinds of fires we had in 2015’.”

Read more: Can communities and lawmakers stop Indonesian peat fires?

Tiur Rumondang, Director of Indonesia Operations for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said that burning is absolutely banned for companies aiming to comply with its standards and criteria.

“It’s what we call ‘major non-compliance’. If a company did this, we would consider it a major violation,” she said.

Iman Santoso from the Indonesian Forestry Business Association (APHI) said the responsibility of stopping fires extends from companies and smallholders to all stakeholders involved in and affected by forestry and land-use decisions.

“Forestry cannot be regarded as an issue for foresters alone. Just as security cannot be considered solely the responsibility of the army, but as a task for the entire nation,” he said.

“That’s why the Indonesian Forestry Business Association is happy to be finally implementing a landscape approach to optimize land use in landscapes that have multiple uses — not just for pulp and paper, not just for palm oil, but for all local crops that already exist there. As a consequence, we need to involve multiple actors, multiple disciplines and multiple sectors in finding solutions.”

By Catriona Croft-Cusworth, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

For more information on this topic, please contact Herry Purnomo at [email protected].


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors

This research was supported by the KNOWFOR program from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).

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  • Fire and haze: Laws and regulations

Fire and haze: Laws and regulations

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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Local laws and regulations banning the clearing and burning of peatlands have sprung up across Indonesia since President Joko Widodo issued a decree on the matter in late 2015.

The president’s order came in response to the annual practice of agricultural burning, particularly during the dry season, which reached crisis proportions in 2014-2015, sparking a regional environmental and public health disaster. Draining and burning peatlands and peat forests to make way for agriculture – including cash crops of oil palm, and pulp and paper – is now banned, with efforts being made to prevent future disasters, as well as restore degraded land.

Research has found that local laws – issued at the provincial, regency or city level – can have even greater impact that national laws in reducing the risk of disaster. A national policy dialogue hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in collaboration with the University of Riau last month brought together more than 300 stakeholders from government, research, business, communities and more to discuss sustainable solutions for a fire-free future.

By Catriona Croft-Cusworth, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors. This research was supported by the KNOWFOR program from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).

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  • Fighting fires with academic narrative

Fighting fires with academic narrative

Canal blocking is seen from above in Dompas, Riau. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Land and buildings are burned after fires spread to Sebangau national park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

Fire and haze, a recurring problem in Indonesia, must be addressed not only within the country but also on a regional level, according to Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo. 

The issue, which often sparks a debate of environmental conservation versus livelihoods, needs to be resolved by taking into account the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

Purnomo and other scientists working in the field hope relevant research, leading to outputs that create an academic narrative to inform policymakers, will create the possibility of legal changes. This, in turn, could help to alleviate the annual blazes.

Recognizing the problems at hand in terms of communication and synergy, CIFOR and partners are coordinating a National Policy Dialogue on Laws and Best Practices for Reducing Fire and Haze, in collaboration with the University of Riau, set to be held in Pekanbaru, Riau, on Aug. 30. The event will come close to home for many participants, as the province has seen more than its fair share of fire and haze events.

Read more: Peatland fire policy: From past to present

The dialogue aims to maximize opportunities provided by the Indonesian legal system at national and subnational levels to reduce fires and share lessons learned from best practices, and is expected to develop ways to strengthen laws to reduce fires and haze, communicate strategies from communities and companies, and support common action among ASEAN member countries.

Purnomo sat down with FTA to discuss the value of the national dialogue and what he hoped would be achieved between stakeholders.

How does research inform the debate about fire and haze in Indonesia? 

Firefighters battle a blaze at night outside Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

This event is part of a UK Department for International Development (DFID) project called the Political Economy Study of Fire and Haze – carried out by CIFOR and partners, and also supported by FTA – mostly located in Riau province. For two years we have been working together with the parliament in Riau as well as district level government.

The research has led to outputs that have created an academic narrative, which has led to the possibility of changes in the law. Last year we provided research inputs for this year’s legislation program through a legal drafting workshop and consultative meetings with various stakeholders including governments, parliament members, private sectors, NGOs/CSOs and academics. We then developed the national dialogue to communicate and also to scale up and scale out the project, not only in Riau.

Peat fires are seen as a means to quickly and cheaply clear land for plantations. But what about the economic and social consequences that result from the haze, which also cost money?

CIFOR is working to find the right balance between conservation and economic development. If we stopped burning altogether, it would be difficult for local people to have a livelihood. Local authorities also need to help find the appropriate balance. To me there’s no magic formula unless you can understand the situation in a particular area and move forward.

We can incentivize other ways of clearing the land and ‘disincentivize’ the burning. In the local law we have put that local governments need to invest, working together with the national agency for technology application, to find the cheapest technology for preparing land without burning.

Canal blocking is seen from above in Dompas, Riau. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR

There also needs to be a willingness  from the community. It’s not cheap at all. You need to learn; you need new technology. Communities need champions.

Why is CIFOR holding the event in Riau?

When fire starts in Riau, it causes haze problems not only in Indonesia but also in Malaysia. Meanwhile, fires in South Sumatra can cause problems in Singapore. Fires typically start in Riau, then Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua. Whatever happens becomes not only a domestic problem but a regional problem.

Why are laws to protect against expanding plantations on peatland not always well enforced in Indonesia? 

Because of patronage. Who burns the land? On the ground you can see farmers. But who owns the land? Actually not those farmers. The land is owned or managed by what we call oknum or cukong, free riders and rent seekers in economic terms. Oknum want to obtain a lot of benefits without appropriate investment. Oknum can be investors, scientists, members of parliament, government officials, police, members of the army, corporate staff… They are linked with lawmakers, and linked with bad police. So it’s a bit complicated on the ground.

Corruption is often involved. But it’s getting better in Indonesia. We have been giving inputs to the law draft at the local level, to provide incentives, and provide more equipment for the police to better carry out law enforcement.

Currently it’s hard for the police to find evidence about who burns land, because to find it, they have to go to remote areas. I went there; I had to rent a 4WD car and it took four days just to reach the area. For example, if there is land burning in a national park, it’s difficult to get there.

You need to spend money if you want to understand the actors. But there is not much money available at the local level to prevent fire and haze. Can we give more support to the local police, to make it possible for them to find evidence? In court we need proof. Proof is important for laying blame.

What needs to be done to ensure that laws and regulations are upheld by the central governments, local administrations, smallholders, the private sector and other actors?

That’s something we included in our inputs to the local law drafts – that local governments have to provide support and money to the police, and also to improve the capacity of the judges. There’s a big difference between environmental charges and criminal charges.

We are working step by step. From the evidence on the ground, when we tried to develop canal blocking or improve farmer organizations, the districts said they didn’t have a budget for it. They said there was no legal umbrella, and asked why they had to put aside money for it.

So, we thought, why don’t we help make a legal basis for them to be able to provide money for this issue? That is the purpose behind the national dialogue.

Army officers and firefighters try to extinguish fires in peatland areas, outside Palangka Raya. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

What are some of the best practices that should be shared and implemented by these actors? 

We have several examples of community-based restoration. In the private sector, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has a program and APRIL has the Fire-Free Villages program. So I invited them to share lessons and challenges.

Restoration in nine villages, for example, costs a lot through this type of program. A hundred villages would cost a lot more. The companies would like the government to help by taking responsibility for giving incentives for preparing land without burning. It’s good but we need to out-scale.

APP, for example, has 500 villages to deal with inside and around its concession. It’s impossible without involving public money and public investment.

What needs to be done regionally – across ASEAN – to address this issue? 

A lot of high-level talks happen but there needs to be more done on the ground. I met with the second secretary of Singapore to discuss what Singapore could do to collaborate and invited them to the national dialogue. Government and private sector representatives from Malaysia and Singapore are expected to attend the national dialogue, as well as academics, and representatives from the ASEAN Secretariat. The Singapore, Thai and Malaysian embassies have been invited.

There is a vision, led by Thailand, for a “haze-free ASEAN by 2020.” It’s very ambitious. We also have a transboundary agreement on haze that has become law. But to me it seems like there is not much action on the ground. We want them to be more involved in the on-the-ground activities. If you have something on the ground, people will respect you. Why not have a district model – one or two hectares showing how fire prevention and livelihood improvement can work together?

It’s part of a huge debate between peat conservation and oil palm. Not only between government and private sectors, but actually among government representatives themselves – for example, with the minister of environment on the one hand and the minister of industry on the other hand. It’s about how to find synergy.

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator. 


This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.


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