JAKARTA: The head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) Nazir Foead said that he is "very optimistic" there will be no fires this year in the peatlands under his supervision.
Speaking to CNA in an exclusive interview on Monday (Jul 20), he said that the agency has improved the methods for preventing fires from happening this time round.
He said that BRG has set up about 150 sensors in non-concession peatlands that can measure the water and moisture level every hour.
These readings would indicate how susceptible the peatlands are to fires. They will also give an indication if someone has purposely drained the peatland with the aim of setting fires to clear the land.
The BRG would send this information to relevant authorities, including law enforcers.
When asked how optimistic he is that no fires will happen this year, Mr Foead replied: "Very optimistic because we are working very hard.”
READ: Indonesia on high alert for forest fires until November as dry season is delayed: Environment minister
The meteorological, climatological, and geophysical agency (BMKG) has predicted a wetter dry season this year, which would also lower the chances of forest and land fires happening.
Despite this, the other government agencies have warned the BRG to remain vigilant, especially amid COVID-19, said Mr Foead.
The pandemic has brought economic hardship as a result of social restrictions put in place to curb the disease and now millions in Indonesia are out of jobs.
“They warned us. They said that those capitalists (brokers) who want to use this opportunity to clear land using fires will find it cheaper to pay people to burn land,” he said.
“(Because) people need more money.”
Authorities have long said that forest and land fires are man-made to clear land, worsened by dry weather.
“So they (authorities) warned us: ‘Be prudent, be prepared, you need to have a stronger intelligence, stronger patrols … The bad capitalists out there are trying to gain an advantage in the situation.
"There’s always those kinds of people and this year they can find easier and cheaper troops to do that,” Mr Foead said.
“So the danger is still high.”
After Indonesia experienced huge forest and land fires in 2015, which resulted in deaths, economic loss and transboundary haze, President Joko Widodo set up the BRG in Jan 2016 to prevent similar incidents.
89% OF NON-CONCESSION PEATLAND HAS BEEN RESTORED
When the agency was first set up, Mr Foead said his team spent the first year planning how to restore peatlands which includes rewetting, revegetating, and revitalising economic livelihood in seven provinces where peatlands are mainly found.
Peatland is an accumulation of multiple layers of organic material such as mosses and plants.
Thus, when it gets burned, the fires would be harder to extinguish than fires on mineral soil as the flames would continue to smoulder beneath the surface.
In the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Papua, the BRG is continuously educating people about the importance of peatland restoration, he said.
There are about 2.6 million ha of peatland in the seven provinces, about 1.7 million ha of them are on concession lands which are the responsibility of companies.
The companies are mainly dealing with palm oil, pulp and paper as well as timber.
The environment and forestry ministry is responsible for overseeing peatland on concession lands, while the BRG is responsible for about 900,000 ha of peatland on non-concession lands which are community lands.
Mr Foead said that 89 per cent of the peatland on non-concession land has been restored as of the end of 2019. The target set by the government is to achieve 100 per cent by the end of this year.
Mr Foead noted how local farmers have taken ownership of the peatlands and have even planted pineapples, vegetables and coffee on the lands.
Commenting on the remaining target, he said: “We are confident when it comes to the non-concession lands.”
However, he noted that forest and land fires are not only dependent on the moisture level of peatland. Tough law enforcement is also crucial to ensure people would not deliberately set fires anymore.
PEATLAND RESTORATION "CANNOT BE DONE QUICKLY"
Mr Foead told CNA that peatland restoration should be a long term effort, as the land cannot be rehabilitated in a short period of time.
He explained that if peatland has been drained since 1999, for example, it would need 10 or even 20 years to be restored.
“Based on cases abroad, there are even instances which take up to 30 years. Even those have not restored completely,” Mr Foead said.
“So ecosystem restoration takes time. It cannot be done quickly.”
The BRG chief, who used to work for the World Wildlife Fund also said that his agency is trying new methods of peatland mapping, which combines coring with three-dimensional satellite images.
With an improved methodology, the agency will have access to land categorisation data. It can then take samples according to every category, which is a quicker and cheaper way of mapping.
Considering the new technologies and methods the BRG now has, backed up by civil society, communities, and governments as well as policies, Mr Foead is hopeful that Indonesia can be a champion in peatland restoration.
“I would really like to see that we will prove this is the most effective way in protecting, maintaining and restoring peatlands.
“We have a lot to share with the world, mostly tropical countries that have huge peatlands. Or maybe any rehabilitation programme in any biome, not only peatlands but also wetland habitats, we can share a lot.”