“To reduce peatland fires in Indonesia needs collaborative efforts… but this is really complicated”

“To reduce peatland fires in Indonesia needs collaborative efforts… but this is really complicated”

Indonesia - 30 May, 2022
Nick PasiecznikNick Pasiecznik

Fires occur every year in Indonesia, during the logging of peat swamp forest, and for clearing land to be developed into industrial plantations, and to a smaller extent in non-peatland areas as part of the traditional practice of shifting cultivation. Here, Atiek Widayati of Tropenbos Indonesia, coordinator of the Indonesian wildfire component of the Working Landscapes programme tells what is being done, and the next steps needed to reduce the risk of wildfires in Indonesia.

Why is it important to address the issue of wildfires in Indonesia?

In Indonesia, fires and the haze they cause have become major problems, and especially since the 1990s when they became a transboundary issue in Southeast Asia. The World Bank estimated that the cost of fires in Indonesia were around US$16 billion in 2015 alone, – a staggering amount, with damage to ecosystems, biodiversity and human health, besides the economy and greenhouse gas emissions. A large part of the problem is being caused by logging of peat swamp forest, and using fire to clear the land, that is then developed into industrial plantations, such as forest plantations or oil palm, or if left abandoned, is then used by local people for farming. To a much smaller extent, there is also burning in the non-peatland areas, like in Kalimantan where we work. The use of fire is part of traditional practice of shifting cultivation, where most are controlled burning following established local wisdom and customary laws. At times fires may get out of control, although the extent and the impacts are much less compared to what happened in the peatlands.

SUB: Degraded Pawan-Pesaguan landscape in Ketapang with some remaining forest and a drainage canal. Photo: Irpan Lamago

What are your goals, and what changes are needed to achieve them?

In 2019, Tropenbos Indonesia began working in the Pawan-Pesaguan peat landscape in Ketapang District. This area is typical of peatswamp forests that have been logged, drained and cleared for oil palm and agriculture, including on deep peat that is very prone to fires. Under our new wildfire programme, we aim to achieve ‘fire-smart’ landscape, and here, ‘fire-smart’ means supporting the application of peatland-smart or peatland-adaptive practices, where fires must be prevented, given the flammability of the peat soil itself. Also, there is no traditional history of using fire in peatlands and other wetlands. We cannot simply reverse current land use into its previous natural state, so fire-smartness means adaptation. For example, where there are now industrial oil palm plantations, these must be managed in compliance with ‘good agricultural practices’ (GAP). In peatlands, water management is an important element of GAP, and the government has put in place a regulation that stipulates a water level no more than 40 cm below the surface, with monitoring and evaluation measures. For smallholders, what options can be proposed? For sure, no-burning land clearing must be reinforced. Water management should be improved also using canal blocks, but besides that, intercropping and agroforestry is also a recommended strategy to improve the micro-climate at farm level. Importantly, we need awareness raising, capacity strengthening and other support – and not just more regulations. There are also alternative agricultural and off-farm options, but these require long-term approaches, including marketing. Then finally, in ‘peat dome’ areas where the peat can be more than 10 metres deep, special conservation and protection is needed, with rewetting and revegetation. But what if such lands are already being farmed? To reduce peatland fires in Indonesia we need collaborative efforts. And to achieve this, various options must be explored, considering land tenure, enabling conditions and instruments, and incentive mechanisms. But this is really complicated…

SUB: Construction of a canal block. Photo by: Irpan Lamago

How do you intend to reduce the risk of wildfires?

In Ketapang, we first brought all stakeholders together – government agencies, large scale producers and smallholders, NGOs, everyone..., considering all the existing interests in the landscape. Then we worked to find a shared vision, including introducing the concept of peatland restoration. The Peatland Restoration Agency is the key agency to guide us on peatland restoration approaches, especially on rewetting. At farm and village level, we are working with smallholders and communities to help to improve agricultural practices, and encouraging them to become more involved in decision making processes. As well as this, we are working to conserve the few remaining peat swamp forests. These are overseen by village forest schemes, but are threatened by encroachment, logging and illegal gold mining. And we fear that without protection, they will also be drained and cleared, adding to the risk of fire spreading to larger areas. So, we are bringing this issue to the attention of all stakeholders, and helping directly also, by strengthening the capacities of village forest management institutions, and trying to find innovative approaches to support them.

What steps have you taken, and what are the next steps?

The biggest achievement so far is that we have been able to facilitate transparent, participatory and inclusive processes across all levels of stakeholders in the landscape and the district. With the government, the aim is to improve enabling conditions for developing programs that support farmers. At local level, we are running field training for farmers, and the training of trainers, looking for local champions, and setting up model peatland demonstration plots so we can spread best practices far and wide. To preserve the last of the peatswamp forests in the area, we are making good progress in our discussions with Lestari Capital, to make money available from the ‘conservation funds’ that they manage, as an incentive for village forest committees to protect these forests. We are also helping village and community level organizations to work together in assessing fire risk – for example if peatland is getting too dry – and on fire patrols. And it is hoped that these short-term achievements will lead to longer term goals, with village institutions becoming involved in peatland-adaptive local land use planning, supported financially through village funds. This is a work in progress, but advances have been made, and we are committed to ensure the creation of fully inclusive fire-smart peatland landscapes in Ketapang, and that will provide a model for others to follow elsewhere in Indonesia.


Atiek Widayati is member of the editorial (sounding) board of the forthcoming edition of Tropical Forest Issues #61 (formerly ETFRN news) - Towards fire-smart landscapes, due for release late august 2022.