Indonesia: Cultivating land without burning

Erlinda Ekaputri Jakarta Post 6 Oct 16;

The forest and land fires that occurred in 2014 and 2015 may have been more devastating than the forest fires in 1982, 1983 and 1997.

According to data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), the 2015 forest fires destroyed 2.09 million hectares of forest and land, which is equivalent to 32 times the area of Jakarta, or four times the size of Bali, with financial losses reaching approximately Rp 20 trillion (US$1.54 billion).

The largest hot spot in the 2015 fires was located in peatlands (1.47 million hectares) and therefore restoring the sustainable utilization of the peatland is a must, since 80 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were from the forest fires.

To restore the 2 million hectares of peatland, the government plans to strengthen the physical infrastructure, such as by installing canals, dams, artesian wells and other facilities to maintain the water levels and to prevent fire during the dry season and by providing fire extinguishers to prevent flames from spreading.

This program is expected to achieve 26 percent of the reduction of GHG emissions. To achieve this target, a zero-burning policy would be applied to communities and companies that would carry heavy sanctions if violated.

In Central Kalimantan, for example, many banners are displayed in almost every corner of the province prohibiting land clearing by burning.

The zero-burning policy for agricultural purposes is a very rational strategy, since fire — even from a single match — may trigger a disaster, particularly in peatland areas.

A peatland fire would be worsened by the wind and lack of water and, on top of that, fire on dry and elastic peatland is difficult to extinguish. In fact, a fire on peatland that seems to have been put out may sometime re-ignite and burn underground.

Information on the government’s policy of prohibiting the burning of forests has been widely disseminated and it has been promoted to the public and supported by local village officers who may sometimes be repressive and rather excessive in handling some cases.

For example, in certain incidents, officials apprehended local people who were seen in the hot spots, but actually these people were trying to extinguish the fire.

Ironically, this policy is ineffective in preventing the burning of forests initiated by individuals and by companies for land clearing.

Data from a 2014 World Resources Institute shows that 22 percent of the hot spots triggering the forest fires and land fires were located in industrial plantations, 13 percent in palm oil plantations and 3 percent in forest concessions, while 63 percent of the fires were located outside the concession areas and in local farmers’ plantations.

Basically, the farmer understands the risk of land burning and no one would want to cause a fire that would negatively affect their livelihood.

It is commonly understood that to prevent forest fires, farmers must guard the land and have no intention to convert the peatland to farming land, which could be destroyed overnight by fire.

Burning land for clearing is an exhaustive task. Nevertheless, the production level is not as sufficient to support their livelihood as it used to be 20 years ago.

The main issue is the limited labor and financial resources to intensively cultivate the land.
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The zero-burning policy is a very rational strategy, since fire — even from a single match — may trigger a disaster

According to Taman, a farmer from Kalampangan village, Palangka Raya, who has been successful in developing agroforestry farming on peatland, the minimum cost is between Rp 5 million and Rp 7 million per hectare.

This cost is for land clearing, acquiring fertile land, purchasing agriculture lime and fertilizers and other additives.

Not many can afford such financing, so they turn to burning the land and then they just leave it burning to seek work outside the village to earn a living for their family.

Ironically, the government has not provided any support to assist the farmers by making available agriculture production facilities or credit facilities that may prevent the farmer from burning the forests for land clearing and eventually prevent uncontrollable fires.

Farmers are basically left unsupported and they only depend on nature’s endowment in preventing forest fires and expect nature to restore the peatland for farming by itself.

Even this cannot guarantee that the land is free from fire in the dry season or free from flooding in the rainy season. Since the hydrology system of the peatland needs to be restructured.

For example, the canals built by the agroindustry companies were mainly intended for the interest of the oil palm plantation and neglect the farming land of the local people. The dams built along the canals were also malpositioned and have caused flooding.

Therefore, it is necessary to restore the hydrology system on the peatland through an integrated approach.

However, the recent policies and programs of the government mainly emphasize extinguishing rather than preventing forest fires.

Thus, it is essential that the small-scale farmers are supported to prevent them from burning the land for cultivation.

The programs could include capacity building of the resources and strengthening the network of the community to cultivate the land without necessarily burning the land by way of education, provision of agriculture facilities and financial capital support.

Through these schemes, it is expected that the farmer would have the capacity and the time to cultivate their land as well as prevent forest fires.

Success stories of peatland cultivation without burning the land as practiced by Taman is a good example.

Without implementing these two actual strategies, the government would be trapped into applying an approach of peatland restoration that is only superficial, resulting in the reoccurring forest fires and the suffering of the people.

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