Indonesia: Trees Don't Grow In Ash -- A Closer Look at RAPP’s Forest Fire Prevention Program

Muhamad Al Azhari Jakarta Globe 2 Jun 16;

Pelalawan, Riau. For both the APRIL Group — a producer of fiber, pulp and paper with a production base in Indonesia — and subsidiary Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, or RAPP, it does not make sense to let the practices of slash-and-burn to clear up land for farming or plantation occur nearby or within their concession area.

“Blackwood does not make white paper. Trees don’t grow in ash. It does not make sense to burn because it does not benefit us at all,” said Ian Wevell, Head of Operations at APRIL's Fire and Aviation department.

APRIL subsidiary RAPP sells its PaperOne line of office paper in more than 75 countries.

Forest fire and the choking haze resulting from it has become a complex and costly issue for Indonesia, with losses estimated at $16 billion last year, a World Bank report says.

The haze from the forest fire poses many serious health risks and threatens the livelihoods of millions of of people in Indonesia and in neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapore.

This year, President Joko Widodo's administration has been trying a new strategy to prevent forest fires with pilot projects involving the private sector, particularly major pulp and paper companies and other companies involved in the forestry and agricultural sectors.

RAPP, which manages a 1,750 hectare manufacturing complex in Kerinci and one of the biggest single-site pulp mills in the world, is among a number of companies now working together with the government to prevent forest fires.

Last week, RAPP’s President Director Tony Wenas signed a memorandum of understanding for a pilot project to standardize forest fire prevention procedures.

The pilot project — called “Desa Bebas Api,” or Fire-Free Village — will focus on community development which will reward fire-prone villages around the Tanoto family-controlled RAPP plantations for keeping the area free of fires during the dry season starting from 2015.

This year, the program will be expanded into 20 villages in four Riau districts (Pelalawan, Siak, Kepulauan Meranti and Bangkalis). RAPP will take care of 18 villages, and two other villages will be handled by RAPP’s supply partners.

Last year, RAPP’s Desa Bebas Api program was implemented in nine villages in Riau and data from the company show it reduced the number of fire incidents by 90 percent compared to the 2014 figures in participating villages.

Ian said RAPP has so far invested $6 million in new fire fighting equipment, including pumps, hoses, helicopters, fire trucks, airboats, double-cabin cars and speed boats. It also spends about $2 million a year on fire fighting operations.

Prevention better than cure

RAPP corporate communication manager Djarot Handoko believes in the old cliché, “Prevention is better than a cure.” To that effect RAPP this year will offer a reward of up to Rp 100 million in infrastructure development for each village participating in Desa Bebas Api program if they manage to keep their villages free from forest and land fires from July 1 to Oct. 31.

Darwis, 52, a farmer from Pelalawan who works on a half-hectare of government-owned farmland, said people in the past tended to burn land to open it up for farming because it was cheap and did not require much effort.

“You only need gasoline and a box of matches to burn land. How much would that cost?” said the father of five, who also works as a cleaner at the Pelalawan subdistrict office.

“Burning takes just one day, by the end you've only got ash on top of the cleaned oil. If you have to cut trees with cleavers and then clean up the tree roots with a hoe to open the land for farming — for half a hectare of land, if you do it on your own, it would take at least a month. It takes a hell of an effort to do that,” Darwis said.

Darwis is among a group of farmers receiving RAPP’s assistance to clear new farmland. In his village in Pelalawan, some farmers have already received hand tractors from RAPP.

Unlike in Indonesia’s most populated island of Java, most of the peatlands in Riau have not been prepared for farming. With little or no irrigation facilities and reliance on rain to water the land, farmers in the region typically enjoy just a single harvest every year, not three or four like their counterparts in Java.

“The rice we produce is only enough to feed our family. That’s the best we can get. We rarely have extra to sell,” Darwis said.

Edi Arifin, community head of the village in Pelalawan where Darwis lives said people in his village are queuing up to get the equipment assistance from RAPP.

“This is proof that enthusiasm for RAPP's program is huge,” he said, adding that village officials have issued clear instructions to the villagers not to burn land or forest to make new land for farming.

Indonesia is stuck in an odd dilemma, with the current administration repeatedly saying it will act firmly against those responsible for forest fires but having to face regulations that actually allow traditional slash-and-burn practices, which have been done for centuries in Sumatra.

According to a 2010 Environment Minister regulation local communities are allowed to burn a maximum of 2 hectares of land as long as they report it first to the village head.

There is also the Government Regulation issued in 2009 which stated that burning land is allowed if it is part of local wisdom.

Village head Edi nevertheless said, “Our village disapproves of land and forest burning. I have warned my people. I will not back them if the authorities punish them for burning their land.”

RAPP’s own data for 2015 show that 78 percent of land and forest fires in Riau was caused by burning land for agriculture. Accidental fires by human error contributed only 15 percent and the cause of the rest of the land and forest fires was unknown.

For people like Darwis, living in an area which was constantly enveloped in choking haze has been punishment enough.

"But please help us with solutions. Don't just blame farmers like us," he said.

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