Indonesian villages rewarded for not burning to tackle annual haze crisis

Jewel Topsfield Sydney Morning Herald 23 Oct 16;

Riau, Sumatra: Haji Muhammad Yunus is in a cantankerous mood.

A diminutive man in a peci cap and blue batik shirt, Yunus is the head of a tiny village, Sering in the Sumatran province of Riau, one of the areas worst affected by last year's deadly haze crisis.

This toxic haze, which chokes South-east Asia year after year, is caused by fires on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Most are deliberately lit because burning is the cheapest and easiest way to clear land for palm oil and other crops.

But there will be no fires in Sering if Yunus has anything to do with it.

Last year Sering was one of nine villages that signed up to a program that promised lucrative rewards if the community did not burn over the dry season – July to October in Indonesia.

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Alas, it missed out. A fire on the outskirts of the village last October destroyed 11 hectares of peatland forest and the community's dream of winning up to 100 million rupiah ($10,000) towards a sports centre.

"Now no money, we can't plan," scowls Yunus, his shoulders slumped as he stands outside the desolate village office, flanked by piles of gravel and ugly scrubland dotted with blackened tree stumps.

Humiliatingly, the village chief had to stand by as neighbouring villages jubilantly asked for their reward money to be spent on a local market, security booths, a mosque and fire-fighting equipment.

Yunus blames the Sering fire on opportunistic "outsiders" who burned without the permission of the village. "It cost us … we regret such behaviour."

But the program goes for two years and this fire season the community of Sering has been vigilant. A sign warning forest burning carries a maximum 15-year jail sentence has been erected on the site of last October's transgression.

With just days to go before the end of the fire season, Yunus is hopeful this time Sering will win the coveted reward. "Inshallah [if Allah wills it], there is no fire so far," he says.

The Fire-Free Village Program aims to prevent fires by providing incentives to villagers to stop burning their land.

What makes it especially interesting is that it is funded not by the government or an NGO but by one of the world's biggest pulp and paper companies.

On the face of it, this seems a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas: forestry giants are widely blamed for being a major contributor to the annual fires.

An analysis of World Resources Institute data in September last year, for example, found 37 per cent of the fires in Sumatra were on pulpwood concessions.

But in recent years the world's major pulp and paper companies have been desperate to fight their green villain reputations.

In 2014 Indonesian pulp and paper behemoth APRIL invited Craig Tribolet, a charismatic Australian forester and firefighter from Bathurst, to have a look at the company's fire management at its plantation in Riau.

The rangy, silver-haired Tribolet was pleasantly surprised by the company's "terrific" fire-fighting capacity.

It spent $US2 million a year on 260 full-time firefighters, helicopters, airboats, water pumps, lookout towers, you name it.

But like Indonesia as a whole, APRIL was focused on what Tribolet calls, in his laconic Aussie way, "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff".

"One thing that had been missed was the concept of prevention – literally stopping fires before they happen," Tribolet says. "Give me $1 in prevention and I will save you $5 in suppression."

Tribolet enthusiasm is contagious. After a 15-minute pitch, APRIL asked him to devise a $US1 million a year fire prevention program.

The Australian selected nine villages to trial the program that were just outside the company's plantation in Riau and identified as being at high risk of fire.

"The vast majority of fires we were going to were from community burning either just within or just outside of our concession," Tribolet says.

Under the Fire-Free Village program, the nine villages were offered assistance to clear their land using machinery instead of fire.

Village crew leaders were paid a salary to buzz around in red shirts emblazoned with the company logo spreading the no-burn message.

Rewards were offered to those villages that did not burn, children were taught "Smoke-free is cool!" as part of a community education campaign and the air quality was monitored.

Ironically, a plume of smoke greets us as we drive into one of the villages.

Last year Pelalawan almost reached fire-free status. The village received a half-reward of 50 million rupiah because a small blaze – probably caused by a cooking fire – wiped out less than a hectare of land.

We discuss whether today's admittedly small fire, used to clear land for a vegetable garden for the women's association, will see the village again penalised.

"This is not really burning land, it's like burning garbage," argues village crew leader Afrizal. "We know the regulation, which is why we are doing it in stages."

Tribolet is sympathetic. It's a controlled, supervised burn at the beginning of the wet season and there is no way the fire could get out of control.

But technically it's still a fire, so it will be reported, and an independent panel will decide if a breach has occurred.

This is all potentially embarrassing in front of the media, but Tribolet is unflappable. "If I only tell you the good news one thing people miss is the heterogeneity of communities," he says.

Before Tribolet came to work for APRIL he had never heard of the expression "greenwashing" – a form of PR spin to deceptively make an organisation appear environmentally responsible. He loves the term: "That's why I tell the guys not to oversell this."

But an independent review of the Fire-Free Village Program by Singapore-based company Carbon Conservation would suggest he is being modest about the success of the program in reducing fire.

The review, commissioned by APRIL, found the amount of burned area within the nine villages had shrunk from 531 hectares in 2014 to just 53 hectares in 2015.

This is despite the fact that last year's fire season in Indonesia was one of the worst on record: fires raged through 2.1 million hectares of land resulting in catastrophic haze across south-east Asia.

Dry conditions, exacerbated by the El Nino effect, and flammable drained peatland, led to what has been described as an "eco-apocalypse".

The Indonesian government puts the death toll at 24 but a recent study suggests more than 100,000 may have died prematurely because of exposure to fine particle pollution.

More than 500,000 cases of acute respiratory tract infections were reported, schools and airports were closed and about a third of the world's remaining orangutans were threatened. The haze contributed to about 3 per cent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

"Considering the seriousness of the fire and haze crisis I was surprised to find the Fire-Free Village Program as the most comprehensive and programmatic solution that I have seen in the nine years we have worked in conservation and climate change," writes review author Dorjee Sun.

An Australian entrepreneur, Sun's work trying to persuade firms to invest in a carbon trading solution to tackle the problems of deforestation in Indonesia was chronicled in the 2008 film The Burning Season.

In 2012, a Fairfax investigation revealed a deal Sun had set up with the government of Aceh to develop a carbon credit scheme had stalled indefinitely, leaving the community bitterly disillusioned.

But "rather than a lofty goal ideal like carbon credits", Sun writes in the review, village leaders expressed their support for No-Burn Village Rewards because "they were provided a clear, tangible and achievable goal".

"We believe the Fire-Free Village program is beginning to really address the root cause of the fires."

Greenpeace, however, is more critical. "It is a good program in terms of the company now trying to engage with the community but that is not enough," says forest campaigner Yuyun Indradi.

Yuyun believes the program is trying to subtly divert blame to the villages when it is the draining, clearing and planting on peatlands that has made them so fire-prone in the first place. "It is strengthening the stigma that fires are caused by the community."

In June 2015 APRIL announced it would stop using wood from natural forests and forested peatland and only use the wood grown on its acacia and eucalyptus plantations.

However Greenpeace says existing plantations on drained peatland continue to do damage and peatlands should be restored to their natural condition. "Ultimately, companies like APRIL have to find alternative species that are endemic to peat or wetland-tolerant," Yuyun says.

In pride of place on the wall of a gappy wooden shack in Pelalawan is a photo of eight-year-old Tengku Muhamad Marcel. He wears a mortarboard and poses with a globe of the earth. These photos, common in homes across the archipelago, reflect the pride Indonesians take in their children's education. However last year Muhamad's school closed as concentrations of air pollutant PM10 reached as high as 2000 in Riau (the World Health Organisation guideline is 50).

"We were very concerned for our oldest son, who had to stay out of school for two months," says his father Tengku Antonia. "It really had no effect because the moment he didn't have school he just went outside to play."

Many of the local kids tore through the ochre haze on their bikes without wearing face masks. Tengku insisted his son only remove his mask inside. But their shack is open to the elements and it too filled with haze. Tengku's wife was heavily pregnant at the time. "Since everyone was suffering, how do you explain it?" Tengku says. "Morning, night, afternoon, it was just the same, all dark. We had difficulty breathing. You couldn't see very far – you could only see two to three metres."

Pelalawan villagers triumphantly show us the motorised water pump they bought with their half-reward. "It is a good program so of course we accepted it," Tengku says.

He owns two hectares of undeveloped land but even after the program ends, Tengku insists he will not burn it to plant crops. "There are other ways of doing it," he says. "If not APRIL, maybe the government will assist. Maybe not with money, but help to open the land in a safe way that doesn't endanger others."

Sustainable agricultural assistance is the one area the review found the Fire-Free Village Program only achieved "low success", although it noted there was high potential.

The target was ambitious. The program offered to prepare up to 20 hectares of land for agriculture in each of the nine villages. Experts from the University of Riau would advise on the best crop. "However in execution it appears that this project has had limited success," the review says.

In late 2015 when the review was conducted only 80 of the promised 270 hectares had been cleared. Most of the plots were small – under half a hectare – and the excavators on offer were simply too big.

"We couldn't get community interest," Tribolet says. This year the villagers were offered chainsaws, brush cutters, fertilisers and hand tractors, which better suited farmers' needs. "We are learning as we go along."

Yunus, the village head of Sering, complains of delays obtaining permits to clear land. Land ownership in Indonesia is often unknown or murky, with overlapping claims, which bog down the permit process. Restrictions on clearing in some areas, such as within 200 metres of a river, cause further headaches.

"The Fire-Free Forest Program will fail in the long-term without alternative sustainable income from agriculture without the need for burning," the review warns.

One solution may be to move to other sources of income such as swallow houses. Swallow nests, which are held together with bird saliva, are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine with a bowl of bird nest soup costing up to $100 in high end restaurants. They are also used in Chinese medicine.

Tomjon, the leader of Kuala Panduk village, says in the review he has been encouraging investment in community owned swallow houses. "They can produce two kilograms per house per month and then sell … for 8.5 million rupiah per kilo for high quality [nests]."

Seven villages have now received the full reward of 100 million rupiah and five villages have received half-rewards. For the most recent fire season APRIL extended the program to 18 villages. "Villages are phoning us now," Tribolet says.

In March this year APRIL formed the Fire-Free Alliance with a group of companies including palm oil giants Wilmar and Musim Mas, and NGOs including the Singapore-based People's Movement to Stop the Haze.

"The goal is that within three to five years the Fire Free Village program will be rolled out successfully in 100 villages," Sun tells Fairfax Media.

In 2017, the first nine villages will graduate from the program and become what is optimistically dubbed "fire resistant".

"The true test is whether villages remain fire free," Tribolet says.

He is exploring ways of helping them stay on track, such as microloans for swallow houses or fish farms.

Scale Up, a non government group that assists rural communities engage with government and companies that have licenses overlapping with community land, warns farmers will revert to burning unless they have an effective alternative.

Burning is a cheap and effective method – sometimes the only method – for poor farmers to clear land in order to support their families.

"Only when our bellies our full can we worry about social issues," Pelalawan village leader Edi Hanafi says in the review.

Scale Up chief executive Hary Oktavian believes the Fire-Free Village Program is yet to provide a viable long-term alternative to burning.

"The reward should be a farming technology applicable to their conditions - the current reward is not providing that," he says.

"The Fire-Free Village Program could be applied nationally, but only if it provides an alternative way of clearing land."

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