Three years have elapsed since massive forest and peat fires ravaged Indonesia scorching 2.6 million hectares across the archipelago. The 2015 blazes produced such vast quantities of toxic haze that they blanketed neighboring countries Singapore and Malaysia. Thousands fell ill, and the Indonesian government suffered $16 billion in economic losses – more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, according to the World Bank.
What ignited this catastrophe? And more importantly, what is being done to prevent it from reoccurring?
FIREFIGHTERS ON THE FRONTLINE
Beads of sweat trickled down Udeng’s face as he hauled a heavy hose across the field during a practice drill with his fellow firefighters.
The 45-year-old father of four is from Tumbang Nusa, a village located in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province on the island of Borneo, an epicenter of the 2015 disaster.
“The fires were very bad,” he said. “I’m here to make sure they don’t happen in my community again.” At the time, Udeng’s kids fell ill with asthma and his wife evacuated them to a neighboring village for almost a month because their home became uninhabitable.
Spurred to action, Udeng joined Indonesia’s sprawling network of district-level volunteer firefighting brigades, locally known as “Masyarakat Peduli Api” (MPA) and formed by village heads. Although Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry established a Forest Fire Brigade at the national level, its capacity is often overextended given its vast mandate. This makes MPAs invaluable. However, many of them suffer from a lack of proper training and equipment given their informal structure.
To remedy this, the UN-REDD Programme recently organized intensive firefighting training for 66 MPAs from six of Central Kalimantan’s most fire-prone villages as part of the “Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilisation of Tropical Peatlands” (GAMBUT) project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and operated by the U.N. Office for Project Services.
The training was run by professional South African firefighters from the Working on Fire Programme who first came to Indonesia in 2015 to assist with the disaster, and have since been collaborating with the GAMBUT project as a key partner to increase knowledge exchange and sharing between the two Southern Hemisphere countries.
“Transferring technical skills is the easy part,” said Trevor Wilson, the program’s executive director. “The biggest challenge is changing the way local people think about fire, so the course stresses 80 percent fire prevention and only 20 percent fire suppression because the best fires are the ones that never happen.”
PEAT AS TINDERBOX
For decades, Indonesia’s smallholder farmers have been using fire to clear land for crops to produce commodities like palm oil, of which Indonesia is now the world’s biggest producer. But intentional fires often spiral out of control, particularly during the annual dry season.
It is particularly problematic when these fires ignite on peatland. Peat is comprised of 90 percent water and 10 percent organic matter (decaying plants underwater). Peat fires can thus smolder underground for weeks. They are nearly impossible to put out without heavy rains.
“Peatlands need to remain underwater. If you drain them, you are left with a pile of organic materials like leaves and branches, which are extremely flammable,” said Johan Kieft, lead technical advisor for the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia.
Of the 2.6 million hectares that burned between June to October 2015, 33 percent occurred on peatlands. When the wildfires broke out, they were exacerbated by an El Niño year that caused an unusually severe dry spell. In normal circumstances, the wildfires would have abated after a few weeks, but in 2015, they raged on for months.
PEAT AND CLIMATE CHANGE
The UN-REDD Programme – a multilateral initiative by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment – was established with the mandate to support developing countries in their efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) by providing strategic and technical advice to national and sub-national governments.
It is working closely with Indonesia, which is a country that is home to half of the world’s tropical peatlands and is now transitioning from REDD+ readiness to implementation on the ground.
Peat is critical to mitigating climate change, as it is one of nature’s most effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. On the flip side, when they are drained and set ablaze, they can release 10 times more carbon than forest fires.
“By preserving peat, we preserve carbon because peat is the largest terrestrial carbon stock in the world,” said Kieft.
Responsible peatland management and fire prevention is vital to ensure that the large fires we saw in 2015 are less likely to happen again. As one of the three UN-REDD partner agencies, FAO is dedicated to supporting Indonesia and other countries in developing peatland management for improving livelihoods and reducing negative impacts, such as wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions.
Improving peatland management in the field can be done by a better monitoring system to give land managers accurate, up-to-date information on peatlands’ location, extent, and conditions on the ground. This information can be used to assess and guide management approaches that ensure long-term success. Using a combination of satellite imagery and on-the-ground measurements, FAO is supporting the Indonesian Government to find accurate, timely, and cost-effective ways to map and monitor its peatlands.
“New Indonesian peat mapping methods will fill a major gap in monitoring Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions and improve management on the ground,” said Adam Gerrand, an FAO Forestry Officer working with REDD+ in Indonesia. “These form a substantial part of the information needed for REDD+ as part of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.”
SUPPORTING INDONESIA’S PEATLAND RESTORATION AGENCY
In an effort to meet its national climate mitigation goals, the president of Indonesia established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) in 2016, with the mandate of restoring 2 million hectares of damaged peatlands by 2020. With funding support from Norway, UNDP was requested to support BRG in enhancing its institutional and technical capacities.
As a result of this support, BRG has been able to develop restoration priority maps and create fund-channeling mechanisms for local governments to conduct peatland restoration. It also established a command center to coordinate restoration and monitor progress in its Jakarta office, as well as a command center for effective law enforcement in the Directorate General for Environmental and Forestry Law Enforcement, Ministry of Environment and Forestry. It further established centers in three provinces (Palembang-South Sumatra, Pontianak-West Kalimantan, Manokwari-West Papua).
Additionally, more than 150 local communities have been trained in the construction of canal blockings, land preparation without the use of draining and fire clearing practices, and alternative livelihoods using restored peatland. Lastly, a systemic peat restoration model is being piloted at peat hydrological unit level in Pulau Padang-Riau Province in collaboration with Indonesia’s Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta.