Indonesia's strategy: No fires = no haze

Rangers extinguishing a fire in Seulawah in Aceh province. The Indonesian government has announced a three-year national programme to prevent fires. Efforts will start at the village level.
Rangers extinguishing a fire in Seulawah in Aceh province. The Indonesian government has announced a three-year national programme to prevent fires. Efforts will start at the village level.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Cheaper to prevent blazes than fight them, says govt; plans for more 'fire-free villages'

Instead of fighting fires, the Indonesian government said it hoped to channel more efforts upstream to prevent them, as it announced a three-year national programme to combat haze and rehabilitate destroyed peatland.

The efforts will start at the village level, to create more "fire-free villages" or "Desa Bebas Api" in Bahasa Indonesia. The central and local authorities will work with the private sector to get local communities more involved in preventing fires.

For instance, small-scale farmers who still clear their land using slash-and-burn methods will be taught land-clearing techniques such as composting or burning land waste in covered drums instead.

While such programmes are already available,they are run by plantation firms and are small-scale, involving only a few villages.

The new national programme, targeted to run from next year to 2019, will involve 731 villages and 66 cities or districts across seven provinces, said National Development Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro on Thursday.

"Land and forest fires have been happening year after year and are made worse by the degradation and destruction of peatland. Managing this has become a national priority," he added.

The Indonesian government aims to provide more economic incentives, beef up the role of village communities and social institutions, boost law enforcement, streamline forestry permit laws and improve an "early fire response", he said during a keynote speech at the International Peatland Symposium.

Last year's regional haze crisis, which affected millions of people in South-east Asia, cost Indonesia around 221 trillion rupiah (S$23.8 billion) in losses, Mr Bambang said.

His announcement came after the government issued a blanket ban last Wednesday on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatland, a move lauded by international environmental groups as a major boost to global efforts in tackling climate change.

Peatland forms when dense layers of wet plant material compact into dense carbon stores over thousands of years. Carbon is released into the environment when these swamps are drained or cleared by fire for commercial plantations - such as for palm oil or pulp wood.

On Thursday, Indonesia's Peatland Restoration Agency chief Nazir Foead said the agency is working on a map to mark priority peatland restoration areas and land for conservation or cultivation.

The mapping exercise has been hampered by rain but he hopes it can be done by early next year.

Over the next five years, the agency aims to restore 1.4 million ha of damaged peatland on companies' concessions and 1 million ha on government land by blocking canals to keep the peat moist.

Before last year, the Indonesian government fought fires whenever they arose, said Mr Nazir. This was more costly as the costs of preventing fires are only a fifth of the costs of putting them out, he said.

After prevention efforts began earlier this year, land burned in fires has gone down from 2.6 million ha to 300,000 ha.

"There's a 90 per cent drop, but it's still happening," said Mr Nazir.

"Next year we hope for more (of a drop), so suppression efforts will be smaller and smaller."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia's strategy: No fires = no haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe