TAMBUSAI, Indonesia: Palm oil farmer Agus Misman recalled how forest fires in 2014 swept through his plantation and destroyed his crop.
The fires also affected many of the other farmers’ land in Tambusai village, which is about three hours’ drive from Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province.
The incident led to the community to brainstorm for ideas, and they decided to implement a canal-blocking system to keep the peatland wet especially during the dry season.
"In 2015, there was a bigger forest fire, but fortunately it did not affect our land,” said Agus. “The other villages did not have a canal-blocking and last year there were fires on their land.”
The 42-year old farmer added the canal-blocking took about one week to build, at a cost of 10 million rupiah (US$750). Such canal-blockings are an integral part of efforts to prevent peat fires, as it ensures water levels in the canal are stable and that the peatland remains wet.
The community in Tambusai village construct their canal-blocking using wood and sandbags, with the system undergoing three rounds of improvements.
"In our first trial, we built it straight, but the water pressure was too great, and the canal-blocking collapsed,” said Agus, explaining the design of the canal-blocking system. “So, we consulted with the community and we designed it in the shape of the letter H. Now, the water pressure is balanced; it runs through the centre and the canal-blocking does not fall anymore.”
Canal-blockings are designed differently depending on the size of the canal. Wider canals require greater engineering work, and experts from the public works ministry will be called upon to build such canal-blockings.
Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency is coordinating efforts to build nearly 20,000 blocking-canals as part of its peatland restoration programme this year. In 2016, more than 16,000 canal-blockings were built.
"I’m convinced (that target can be achieved),” said Nazir Foead, head of the Peatland Restoration Agency. “Why? Because the local governments and communities are fully involved.
“The community will build their own canal-blockings with technical and financial support from the government and donors; and then companies have to do it with our supervision, and our guidance as well."
The agency has been tasked to restore around two million hectares of peatland in seven provinces that have been damaged due to forest fires in Indonesia. It has been given a target to repair 400,000 hectares of degraded peatland in 2017, about half of it is in concession areas.
With nearly half the year gone, Nazir told Channel NewsAsia that only less than 10 per cent of the work has been done. But he is unfazed by the challenge, indicating that the target remains on track.
The agency has been focusing efforts on establishing a detailed high-resolution map to better manage the country's peatland forests.
"This is a massive taxpayer-funded project,” said Nazir. “We have to plan it very well because we want to avoid (inaccuracies); from the end of last year until May, we were finalising detailed mapping. That takes a bit of time, once that is done, it’s all about mobilising our partners.”
Nazir added that work to restore the peatland is usually done at the end of the rainy season.
He explained that constructing canal-blocking requires a lot of equipment – and logistics can be more costly when the ground is wet.
"If you do it in the beginning or in the middle of the rainy season it’s going to be very expensive to bring all of the equipment,” said Nazir. "Secondly, the technical work in constructing it is best avoided during floods and in the wet season."
The work to restore the peatland is a massive one. More bottom-up, community efforts like in Tambusai village will be needed to achieve the target and to ensure the peatland remains wet and free from fires.
For Agus, he hopes to build more canal-blockings soon. "If it's possible, we need more than seven in the village, because it has proven very useful for us," he said.