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Kisruh Sekartran Lestari is the village leader in Sebangau Jaya in Central Kalimantan, where new agricultural techniques are introduced as alternatives to the use of fire for clearing land.

Forest fires in peatland: Determined efforts to prevent another 2015

In 2017, journalist Asle Olav Rønning from the Norwegian publication «Bistandsaktuelt» visited Indonesia to cover the work carried out on peatlands. Following Mr. Rønning's visit, the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta had three of his articles translated into English. This is the first of them. The article was originally published in September 2017.

| Jakarta

Indonesia’s tropical peatlands are large-scale climate bombs. In 2015, a large number of forest fires caused severe social, economic and environmental damage across the archipelago, as well as massive greenhouse gas emissions with a global impact. Norwegian development assistance is contributing to efforts to prevent this from happening again.

By Asle Olav Rønning, for Bistandsaktuelt in Indonesia

The sun beats down on a treeless, flat area in Central Kalimantan, one of the five provinces in the Indonesian part of Borneo. Though green plants and small bushes are the first to come into sight, underneath the new vegetation lies charred stumps and roots, and even the soil is scorched black. For as far as the eye can see, there are no tall trees to provide shade from the heat. All was engulfed in an immense fire that started in the summer of 2015. A group of men from the village of Gohong recall the disastrous events of the summer two years ago.

– The entire area burned down. We got a hold of a little water pump, but it didn’t work. It was small and useless, says Jumadi, a farmer and father of four.

Jumadi (left) and Dundung are farmers in Gohong village in Central Kalimantan. Their village lost large areas to forest fires in 2015.

Jumadi (left) and Dundung are farmers in Gohong village in Central Kalimantan. Their village lost large areas to forest fires in 2015. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Jumadi, who like many Indonesians has only one name, is immaculately dressed in a grey shirt without the slightest wrinkle, and has slicked back, dark hair. His face wears a worried expression and he explains that the fire didn’t stop even when all of the trees and vegetation had burned up.

– The fire continued underground. Eventually, we could no longer see the flames, only smoke, he says.

The fire started in July, but wasn’t out until October. The reason that the fire could burn so long is that the ravaged area lies in peatland. Fires in peatland can continue smouldering for weeks and months.

Indonesia has the world's largest area of tropical peatland. Such  peatlands have layers of peat built up over thousands of years. In some places, these layers can be up to 15 meters thick. A characteristic of peat is that it stores a great amount of carbon. When dried out, the peatlands can also be huge firebombs, and the fires are very difficult to extinguish once ignited.

Loss of income from the forest

Gohong is one of many villages that lie along the Kahayan River, which meanders slowly from the inner part of Borneo south towards the Java Sea. The sea is a good distance away, but close enough that the tide water can reach the village.

The area destroyed by the fire lies on the Eastern bank of the river. It used to be a cultivated forest that, among other things, was used to tap natural rubber.

In total, several thousands of hectares of the village’s forest were razed in 2015, and it will take many years before new trees can be harvested.

– This has, of course, caused a huge loss of income, says Dundung, another of the farmers in Gohong village. He explains that his family must manage with significantly less than before the fire.

The inhabitants in Gohong are Dayak. Dayak is a major ehtnic group in Borneo, with many sub-groups. The forest has traditionally been an important resource for the Dayak, and not least a place to earn an income.

Smothered under a blanket of smoke

In the summer and autumn of 2015, more than 120 000 small and large fires broke out in Indonesia, many of them on peatland. Central Kalimantan was among the provinces the hardest hit. Fires are not an uncommon occurrence, but this particular year was the worst in nearly two decades. According to the official figures, 2,6 million hectares – an area more than half the size of Denmark – burned. According to a 2015 World Bank report, the fires had a price tag of close to USD 12 billion (NOK 100 billion) in direct economic loss, in additon to the loss of natural assets.

Burning peatland gives off a thick smoke. In 2015, this smoke created a haze covering large areas of the Indonesian archipelago. The neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Singapore also suffered. Smoke affected air traffic and reduced visibility, making it potentially dangerous to move about the streets. According to researchers at Harvard University and Colombia University, USA, model calculations show that the fires caused more than 90,000 premature deaths due to respiratory disease and other sicknesses.

In terms of the impact on climate change, greenhouse gas emissions caused by the forest fires set Indonesia as one of the world’s top emitters of CO2 in 2015, with more emissions than countries such as Great Britain or Japan. In an email to Bistandsaktuelt, Professor Guido van der Warf at the Vrije University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, wrote that the most recent research gives an estimate of overall emissions from Indonesia’s 2015 forest fires at 1.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalents.

Professor van der Warf is a leading expert on global emissions from forest fires and contributes to the Global Fire Emissions Dabatase. His figures indicate that two weeks’ worth of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from Indonesia’s forest fires in 2015 were equivalent to one full year’s worth of emissions from all domestic sources in Norway.

There are multiple reasons as to why the fire season in Indonesia was particularly damaging in 2015. El Niño, the weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, led to drought in parts of Indonesia, as well as delayed monsoon rains. Small farmers traditionally clear forests with fire, which can quickly get out of control without rain. This method of clearing is also used on privately-owned plantations.

Even more important is the fact that Indonesia’s peatlands have increasingly been used for palm oil and pulp plantations. Canals have been dug and peatland drained to give maximum yield. With dried up peatlands, it doesn’t take much for a fire to rage out of control and spread over large areas.

Presidential intervention

After a disastrous 2015, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo took serious action. The president, commonly known as Jokowi, wanted an end to the forest fires. He warned the police and military who did not stop the fires in their areas that their jobs were on the line. Companies suspected of being responsible for the fires were reported, and a ban on cultivating more peatland was passed.

A new public agency for peatland restoration, Badan Restorasi Gambut (BRG), was established in record time and this agency reported directly to President Jokowi. In addition to this, Indonesia promised large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as part of the Paris Climate Agreement. Progress in terms of reduced emissions from deforestation and peatland will most likely be an important part of Indonesia's strategy to reduce national emissions.

Even without taking forests into account, peatland restoration can reduce Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions. Drained and dried out peatlands release more CO2 than healthy ecosystems. According to one estimate from Global Forest Watch, a website established by the independent think tank World Resources Institute, annual emissions from dried out peatlands connected to plantations in Indonesia are 213 million tons of CO2. That equals five times the amount of Norways' annual CO2 emissions.

Norway entered into an agreement with Indonesia in 2010 that promised Indonesia up to USD one billion as results-based payment for reduced deforstation. This placed Indonesia as a key partner in the Norwegian efforts in tropical rainforest conservation, known as Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI).

 Jokowi’s predecessor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, played a significant role in reaching the agreement. However, during Mr. Yudhoyono's time in office, Indonesia did not advance much beyond the initial preparation phase. Also during the first year of President Jokowi’s term, not much happened. By the end of 2015, Norway had only paid around USD 67,5 million (NOK 545 million) to Indonesia.

This is the background as to why the Norwegian Government eagerly grasped Jokowi’s newfound vigour after the fire season in 2015. Norway's Minister for Climate and Environment, Mr. Vidar Helgesen, praised the 2016 ban on the cultivation of Indonesian peatlands, saying it was a major breakthrough for Indonesia and the global climate. Norway had by then already pledged to contribute USD 25 million as support to the new Peat Restoration Agency (BRG).

2,8 million football fields of peatland

BRG’s immediate task is to coordinate the efforts to restore two million hectares of degraded peatland by 2020. The area corresponds to 2,8 million football fields. One of the most important measures is to build dams to block the canals that have been dug through the peatlands. 2016 was a busy year with 16,000 big and small dams hastily built.

Speaking with Bistandsaktuelt in his office in Jakarta, BRG head Nazir Foead explains that those efforts were done in anticipation that 2016 could be another year with little rain. Luckily, the monsoon rains came early and brought a lot of precipitation.

Nazir Foead leads Indonesia’s peatland restoration agency.

Mr. Nazir Foead leads Indonesia’s Peat Restoration Agency. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Mr. Foead, who has previously been director of conservation in WWF-Indonesia, was handpicked by President Widodo to lead the new agency. In January 2016, Mr. Foead was sworn in and two months later the agency was busy at work.

According to Mr. Foead, the agency gave priority to mapping, as well as experimenting with different techniques for peatland restoration. Countries like Japan, Canada and Sweden have previously carried out similar efforts, but experience in tropical regions is quite limited.

Restoring Indonesia’s peatland is a big challenge. Mr. Foead still seems reasonably optimistic regarding the prospects.

– The task is huge, it’s big. But it is being carried out by many executive agencies, he says.

This includes several ministries, the army and the police, as well as the participation of local communities and NGOs. A significant part of the responsibility falls on those who own peatland. This can be federal or provincial authorities, villages or private companies running plantations.

– So yes, it is a big job. But we are not alone, says Mr. Foead.

Creating fire-proof peatlands

In the village of Gohong, several measures have already been put into place. A canal carrying brown-black marsh water out of the peatlands is now blocked. Right beside the canal is one of several wells that can be used to control the peatland’s water level – and to extinguish a possible new fire.

If you lose your way among the roots and branches in the fire ravaged peatland, you will sink down to well above your ankles. This is a promising indication that the peatland is full of water.

Canal blocking close to Gohong village. Such blockings stops the draining of peatland.

Canal blocking close to Gohong village. Such blockings stop the draining of peatland. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Indonesia has a considerable level of decentralisation of power and responsibility. Village leadership and the local and regional administrations have a key role to play in setting to work to secure the peatlands.

The blockage of a series of canals has been assured at the district level, and there are plans for the next steps, explains Tiswanda. He is in charge of coordinating the planning of peatland restoration in the district of Pulang Pisau, including Gohong.

– I hope that we can carry out the plans. But we need funding to do this,» stresses Tiswanda.

Village leader Yanto L. Adam (center) in Gohong village talks about progress in peatland restoration efforts. Tiswanda (left) is in charge of coordinating restoration efforts in Pulang Pisau district. Village secretary Andang Sigito to the right.

Village leader Yanto L. Adam (center) in Gohong village talks about progress in peatland restoration efforts. Tiswanda (left) is in charge of coordinating restoration efforts in Pulang Pisau district. Village secretary Andang Sigito to the right. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Also at the local level, the task at hand is immense. Pulang Pisau is the size of a medium-sized Norwegian county, and two thirds of the surface area is peatland.

Suharto's final mark

The ongoing restoration of Indonesia’s peatlands in Gohong and elsewhere in Central Kalimantan is partly a delayed response to flawed policies enforced during the nation’s troubled past. For three decades, General Suharto was Indonesia’s autocratic president. Suharto was pushed out of office in May 1998. Right at the end of his reign, the Mega Rice project, a plan intended to turn a million hectares of Borneo’s peatland into rice paddy, was launched.

The Mega Rice project caused large areas of forests in peatland to be cleared, and miles and miles of canals were dug out. Only then was the discovery made that the soil and the climate in Central Kalimantan were not compatible with the Javanese style of rice production that was planned. The whole project was written off as a huge fiasco and shelved by Suharto’s successor in the presidential palace.

However, the environmental damage was already done. The impact became even worse due to a large number of fires, partly caused by the Mega Rice project, that broke out in 1997 and continued well into 1998. 1997 was, just as 2015, a major El Niño year (El Niño tends to occur every two to seven years).

Assistant Professor Jenny Goldstein of Cornell University in the United States  describes the 1997/1998 fires here. According to the Global Fire Emission Database, greenhouse gas emissions caused by Indonesian forest fires were two to three times higher in 1997 than in 2015.

Demanding compensation for smallholders

Iber Djamal knows this part of Indonesia’s history all too well. Mr. Djamal is chief of the Dayak council in Pulang Pisau district, and also among the pioneers who established the nation-wide human rights and advocacy organisation known as AMAN (Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago). He welcomes Bistandsaktuelt into the home he shares with this wife.

It is a big, wooden house built in traditional style, with high ceilings. Despite the hot afternoon, the temperature is comfortably cool inside. Two cats wander in and out of the open door. A somewhat faded picture of Indonesia’s first president and founding father Sukarno hangs prominently on the wall. Other photos on the wall seem to commemorate political campaigns in which Mr. Djamal participated.

– I am not in very good health anymore, but I was active. One time, I protested in front of the Governor’s office for 13 days, says the 76-year-old.

He is still light on his feet, though. He hops down from the veranda, showing us around the lush kitchen garden where he grows dragon fruit, aubergines, beans, cassava, taro and much more. There is also a rubber tree. With a steady cut, using a curved knife, he demonstrates how to tap the milk white sap that still has important economic benefits for Dayak communities.

Mr. Djamal is a survivor of the 1965-66 mass killings of members and supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), a violent chapter in Indonesia's history that seldom is discussed in current Indonesian politics. According to historians, between 500 000 and one million people were killed during the unrest that eventually led to the fall of President Sukarno and the rise of General Suharto to power.

– I was in prison and I was tortured. I was 21 years old at the time, says Mr. Djamal, who was a member of the communist party and lost several of his friends.

Iber Djamal is chief of the Dayak council in Pulang Pisau district. He has vivid memories of the disastrous Mega Rice project and the large forest fires in 1997-1998.

Iber Djamal is chief of the Dayak council in Pulang Pisau district. He has vivid memories of the disastrous Mega Rice project and the large forest fires in 1997-1998. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Somehow, he did not loose his spirit during the years of suppression. More than 30 years later, he was protesting, demanding justice for farmers after the Mega Rice project and the fires that followed in its wake. Many farmers in his district lost their land in the fires in 1997-1998, and were, according to Mr. Djamal, «forced to live on dry noodles».

– There was finally a form of compensation, but less than what the authorities promised, he says.

Indonesia’s transition to democracy was gradual and drawn out. Several of those who had risen to prominence under President Suharto stayed in power. 

Potemkin village in the Tropics

Criticism was not voiced under Suharto, and the general himself may not have even understood what he had set in motion. Environmental activist Edi Subahani from the organisation Sistem Hutan Kerakyatan (SKH) in Palangka Raya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan, works together with local authorities and villages on the measures to secure the peatlands. Mr. Subahani tells of a story about when President Suharto himself came for a visit to check on the Mega Rice plans.

To convince the general that everything was going according to plan, they made an artificial rice field on infertile soil.

– They laid tarpaulins on the ground, covered them with fertile soil and planted rice. When Suharto came, they showed him this to create the impression that the soil was fertile. I have heard this story from many people, so it cannot be made-up. In Suharto’s time, most of the state visits were ceremonial and he was led to believe that everything was fine, but it was all for show, says Subahani.

Whether or not the story is true, critical voices were not listened to while Suharto was in power. By the time Suharto’s era was over, much damage was already done, and in the years after, deforestation continued. Many of the canals now being blocked as part of the efforts to restore the peatlands, were dug during the Mega Rice project. Suharto was never put to justice, neither for the environmental damage nor for the human rights’ violations.

Major changes required

Restoring Indonesia’s peatlands and lowering the risk of fires, is not without controversy. One example is new requirements saying that the water level in peatlands must always be 40 centimetres or less below the surface, even on plantations. A significant part of Indonesia’s expansive palm oil plantations lies on peatland areas. The industry is not too keen on strict regulations that can lead to reduced productivty, and a high water level is hardly optimal for oil palms.

Also family farmers may need to change their agricultural methods. Kisruh Sekartran Lestari is the village leader in Sebangau Jaya. This village is located several hours of travel south of Gohong and was established by migrants from other parts of Indonesia in the early 1990s. Here, fires are no longer used to clear new land.

Instead, the village can use tractors to clear rice fields, and has also received seed and training in new cultivation methods. 36-year-old Ms. Lestari shows us a bright green field with nearly ripe rice. This land belongs to the village. The households are spilt into four groups, and each has their share of common land.

Kisruh Sekartran Lestari is the village leader in Sebangau Jaya in Central Kalimantan, where new agricultural techniques are introduced as alternatives to the use of fire for clearing land.

– This will be the first harvest, but it looks like the crop will be bigger than when we used fire to clean the soil, Ms. Lestari says optimistically. Photo: Asle Olav Rønning

Efforts such as those in Sebangau Jaya, Dohong and other villages will reduce the risk of new catastrophic fires, but there is still uncertainty as to whether the measures are sufficient to prevent large-scale fires from braking out during long periods of drought. In the summer of 2017, authorities in provinces in Sumatra and Borneo were forced to declare high levels of alert after an increased occurrence of small-scale fires. Eventually, the fires were contained, and there were no massive fires like in 2015.

In Jakarta, Nazir Foead of the peatland conservation agency BRG is careful not to hand out any guarantees. He says that the measures already taken will help keep the peatlands wet during the rainy season. Yet, with little rain during the dry months, the peatlands will eventually be susceptible to fires. He is still confident that the measures taken will make a big difference.

– There will be fires. But what we are very confident in saying is that they will be put out much quicker than in 2015, and that they will not spread like they did in 2015, says Foead.

Read more:

Impressed by fast progress in peatland restoration

Venturing into Indonesia's rainforests