Indonesia: Taking the hot seat in war on haze

Mr Nazir plans to plant agricultural crops on the restored land, thus boosting Indonesia's food security while providing new incomes for companies and communities.
David Fogarty, The Straits Times AsiaOne 18 Apr 16;

Conservation veteran Nazir Foead is Indonesian President Joko Widodo's frontman in the fight against the haze.

He is literally a man in the hot seat, and he knows he has to deliver where others failed.

As head of the newly created presidential Peatland Restoration Agency, he is tasked with leading a national effort to restore fire-prone peatlands to curb the annual fire risk.

To succeed, his agency will have to change the way bureaucrats, companies and farmers think about how they exploit the land - moving from development with little heed for the damage caused, to agricultural development that protects the land while benefiting communities and companies.

It's a monumental challenge for a nation that has become synonymous with massive deforestation and rampant, poorly governed agricultural expansion.

But Mr Nazir, 49, an ethnic Chinese from Medan, is confident his agency can succeed. He said last year's fires changed everything.

"The government was shocked to see what happened in 2015," he told a sustainability conference in Singapore last Friday.

"I cannot emphasise more how serious Indonesia is, preparing actions, programmes and changing policies to prevent fires from happening. We understand that prevention actions have not been a focus."

That had changed, he stressed.

He said he had the full support of the President and key ministries. But he faces a sceptical public and sceptical regional neighbours tired of seeing Indonesia's forests and peatlands go up in smoke every year.

Mr Nazir, however, is used to getting his way. He spent 20 years at WWF coaxing bureaucrats and companies into making Indonesia a little greener.

Before becoming head of the peat agency in January this year, he led the Indonesia conservation initiative for the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA), a collaboration by a group of United States foundations.

A key focus was encouraging palm oil as well as pulp and paper companies to be more environmentally responsible and to respect local communities. Preserving peatlands was another focus.

Mr Nazir brings that depth of understanding of the issues to his new ministerial-ranked role. Unlike many of his government peers, he does not belong to a political party, and has never worked in the bureaucracy or the corporate world. Thus, his new role represents a major shift in his career... and risks.

And those risks were daunting - so much so that he initially turned down the job, he told The Straits Times.

"I was in my comfort zone at the CLUA," he said. "I loved the job. Leaving meant taking on a huge responsibility, maybe creating many more enemies in my career. But if we all were concerned about the risks in the first place, we would not start to make a change."

"I believe in this President," he added.

With Mr Joko, he shares a background in forestry. Both attended the forestry school at Gadjah Mada University, in Yogyakarta, although in different years.

The new agency's mission is to restore two million ha of peatlands within five years in seven provinces. Priority areas will be in Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, where most of last year's fires raged. Nearly one million ha of peatlands went up in flames, producing the acrid smoke that blanketed the region.

Peat becomes highly flammable when cleared of forest and drained using deep drainage canals.

It can burn for weeks or months. Some peatlands are up to 8m deep, and an estimated 2 million km of canals have been dug over the years by loggers and plantation firms.

Damming the canals and reflooding the surrounding landscape is seen as the best way to reduce the fire risk.

But that pits Mr Nazir's agency directly against companies with plantations on peatlands, as well as officials with vested interests in palm oil or other crops planted in peat.

On the sidelines of the sustainability conference organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Mr Nazir said his agency had already mapped 2.26 million ha of priority areas - sites where there have been a high fire frequency and where the peatlands are dry.

Of these, about 1.9 million ha are in cultivation areas, with 25 per cent on community lands. The remaining sites are in government conservation areas, which will be reflooded and returned to natural forest.

The agency is still finalising the map of areas to be restored, and companies are waiting to see how much of their land will be affected. But Mr Nazir noted that rewetting peatlands could benefit all sides.

"It is an easy logic. Instead of having these fires, we're restoring the land and planting with agricultural crops, not only forest species, that increase Indonesia's food security."

He said there are about 100 species, including crops and timber, that can grow in flooded peatlands. These provide alternative incomes for companies and communities.

Land that is repeatedly burnt is already loss-making and non-productive, said Mr Nazir. Restoring it makes economic sense, and can help end conflicts between communities and companies.

"If the conflict can be resolved, the land can be flooded, and it can be planted with certain crops that benefit the companies and the farmers, everybody wins," said Mr Nazir.

That runs counter to the view that clearing peatlands and burning the forest is profitable. In reality, doing so simply primes the land for more fires in future, said Mr Nazir.

It is this change in mindset that he hoped would take root.

Already, he said, the main pulpwood companies are keen to explore growing alternative peatland timber crops that can be used in their mills. He also pointed to the major palm oil and pulp firms supporting zero-deforestation, zero fires and zero peatland clearance in their green policies.

He said his agency had set a target of restoring 600,000ha by the end of this year and another 400,000ha next year, and had already begun work in Riau province near Singapore.

Moreover, he had received about US$135 million (S$183 million) in funding pledges from Norway, the US, the European Union, Britain and soon Japan, with major additional funding from the Indonesian government from next year.

He said the idea was to mainstream peatland restoration, and community livelihoods, so it became standard practice. That would be like hitting the jackpot, he added.

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