Planting crops, building wells: Local volunteers take the lead to prevent yearly peatland fires in Indonesia's Riau
KAMPAR, Riau: Mr Zam Zami and his fellow Karya Indah villagers in the Indonesian province of Riau cheered as government officials grabbed and pulled their cassava plants out of the soil, marking the beginning of the harvest season.
It signified that their hard work for the last 11 months has paid off.
Mr Zam Zami, who like many Indonesians does not have a family name, has been leading a group of 15 people to plant cassavas on peatland which is usually burned during the annual fires in their district.
“We clear the peatland and plant the crops and also maintain them,” he told CNA.
The community is guided by the local government and Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) which gave them training and funding and helped them with administrative matters.
Before this, Mr Zam Zami used to manage oil palm trees. Riau is the main producer of palm oil in Indonesia.
Authorities believe that forest and land fires are man-made to clear land, mainly to make way for oil palm plantations and to produce timber, pulp and paper.
The fires are usually worsened by dry weather which in Indonesia normally peaks around July and August.
Last year, about 1.6 million ha of forest and peatlands were burned in Indonesia, and about 90,000 ha of which were in Riau, according to data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry.
Land and forest fires typically result in economic loss, transboundary haze in Southeast Asia and even deaths.
In 2015, Indonesia experienced its biggest fires in decades where 2.6 million ha of land were burned, releasing the greatest amount of carbon emissions since 1997.
According to the World Bank, daily emissions from Indonesia’s fires in October 2015 - at 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a day - exceeded the daily emissions from the entire United States.
After Indonesia experienced huge forest and land fires in 2015, President Joko Widodo set up the BRG in January 2016 to prevent similar incidents.
In an interview with CNA earlier, the head of BRG Nazir Foead said the agency is trying to rewet and revegetate peatlands on community lands in seven Indonesian provinces as well as to revitalise economic livelihood of people living on peatlands.
READ: Head of Indonesian peatland agency says he is 'very optimistic' there will be no forest fires this year
The village of Karya Indah is one of the success stories. Peatland fire used to be a normal occurrence in September every year, but it did not happen last year.
“In 2019 there was no fire here because we started planting the peatland with cassava in August,” Mr Zam Zami said.
Besides planting crops on peatlands, the communities participating in the BRG programme also build deep wells and canal blocks to ensure that peatlands remain moist.
When the peatlands are moist, the chances of them catching fire will be smaller.
However, manpower and finance resources are two main issues faced by the participants, who are mostly volunteers.
COMMUNITIES DIG DEEP WELLS AND BUILD CANAL BLOCKS
Mr Subandi, a 45-year-old farmer, was among the villagers of Karya Indah who have dug about 50 deep wells since 2019.
The wells were created at spots which have been identified by the BRG based on where fires usually occur.
“The existence of the wells have been helpful. If it is dry season and there is fire, we don’t have difficulties anymore finding water,” Mr Subandi said.
“However, the wells are more for wetting the peatland and not really extinguishing the fires,” he said. To put out fires, they would need more water.
Mr Subandi, who has been living in the village since 1985, told CNA that for as long as he can remember, there have always been fires in Karya Indah.
READ: Indonesia on high alert for forest fires until November as dry season is delayed, says environment minister
“The fire in 2015 was the worst,” he said, recalling the massive fires which engulfed about 20ha in his neighbourhood for weeks. A particular area was even on fire for two months, he added.
He is part of the Fire Concerned Society, a local community group which helps the Indonesian Forest Fire Control Brigade Manggala Agni, a government patrol group focusing on extinguishing fires and educating people to protect the environment.
Over in Riau’s capital Pekanbaru, a community group has built a canal block at peatlands in the sub-district of Payung Sekaki. The area had caught fire last year.
The canal was blocked with sacks filled with soil, geomembrane and hardwood so that the water level in the canal and peatlands can be retained when the water cannot flow elsewhere.
“During the dry season, there is a tendency of fires here so the environment and forestry agency and the BRG decided there should be canal blocks here, and that’s how we got involved,” said Mdm Sukarmi, treasurer of the community group.
“God willing there are fewer land fires now because the lands have been rewetted by the canal blocks,” she added.
MOST LIKELY LESS FIRES THIS YEAR
The head of Riau’s disaster agency Edwar Sanger told CNA that from January until July this year, they have detected 580 hotspots in the province, considerably less than last year's over 800 hotspots during the same period.
Among the 13 strategies implemented by the province was roping in companies with licences to operate on plantations and forests to get involved in patrols.
“So far it is conducive,” Mr Sanger said.
From January until early June last year, over 3,000ha of land was burned in Riau. For this year, the the agency recorded fires on about 1,300 ha of land up until early July.
To avoid massive fires in the province this year, the provincial disaster agency has also carried out water bombings with more than 11,876 litres of water, and implemented weather modification with cloud seeding using 38,400kg of salt.
READ: COVID-19 cuts force Indonesia to scale back forest protection
Indonesia’s Meteorological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) has also predicted a wetter dry season this year, which would also lower the chances of forest and land fires.
The police, meanwhile, have also kept a close watch on culprits of land and forest fires across the nation.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday (Aug 4), national police spokesman Brigadier-General Awi Setiyono said that the police have identified 98 suspects as of early August.
"Currently there are still 34 cases being processed, and 53 cases have been completed (at the first stage)," he said.
LACK OF MANPOWER AND FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE
While the community programmes have seen encouraging results, locals lamented that manpower has been a challenge.
The Fire Concerned Society in Karya Indah, which is in-charge of the wells in the village, consists of 15 people but not everyone is an active member.
“The wells will be useless if there is not enough manpower to maintain and operate them,” Mr Subandi pointed out.
He also revealed that with only 15 members, they cannot operate all the wells at the same time.
READ: It all begins with a lit match: Long odds in hunt for forest fire culprits in Indonesia
To ensure local communities continue to play a crucial role in preventing land and forest fires, Mr Foead of the BRG promised to look into offering more incentives to the volunteers.
“We help them in providing resources and checking each of the infrastructures, so that the rewetting infrastructure is functioning. They have a budget for a small honorarium, for transportation cost and for meals.
“It is not big, but there are some (money). And of course, we will be happy to provide more resources which means that they would have more time checking the lands because some of the areas that need to be checked are not easy (to reach),” Mr Foead said.
Although the community groups have started to make an impact, Mr Zam Zami, the cassava farmer, said he is hoping for more financial assistance from the government, especially now that the price of cassava has dropped.
“I hope that in the near future the peatland can be further managed and the government will pay more attention to us, little farmers.”
Despite his concerns, Mr Zam Zami said he is so far satisfied.
“I am happy because I can guide people to do better.”