Indonesia warns farmers, plantation companies to prepare for drier weather and fires

Farmers and plantation firms could be caught off guard following three years of wet weather, said Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, head of Indonesian's meteorology agency. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Indonesia’s government has warned farmers and plantation companies to be on guard against fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan due to possible prolonged drier conditions across South-east Asia caused by the El Nino weather pattern.

Central Sumatra – from where haze occasionally travelled to Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore – usually sees dry spells twice a year, around March and again around October.

Head of Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, said that after three consecutive years – 2020, 2021 and 2022 – of predominantly wet weather, farmers and plantation companies could be caught off guard in 2023 when there is a 50 per cent chance of the El Nino event happening.

“Declines in rainfall will not only happen in October,” she said. “In fact, we have seen declines in February.”

She noted that dry weather had already hit Riau, parts of Jambi and North Sumatra, parts of Sulawesi and the north-western region of West Papua province. All other regions in Indonesia have only one dry spell, mostly sometime between May and September.

“We have to be extra cautious, especially in Riau and Jambi, for any possible plantation and forest fire,” Dr Dwikorita said.

She added that the rare occurrence of three consecutive years of wet weather, or La Nina triple dip, had reinforced the tendency among recalcitrant farmers and companies to use the slash-and-burn method to clear land, but such action would not be tolerated by drier weather in 2023.

Indonesia suffered haze episodes in some years between 1997 and 2015 as farmers and companies used the slash-and-burn techniques. The fires in 1997 and 2015 were especially big, worsened by severe drought. The resulting haze from the 2015 fires shrouded Singapore and Malaysia as well.

In the following years, stepped-up law enforcement – including a shoot-on-sight order against fire starters – and better firefighting equipment mandated for plantation companies resulted in a significant decline in the scale of fires.

Mr Subakir, an elementary school principal in Palangkaraya, the epicentre of the 2015 haze crisis, told The Straits Times that roadside billboards and banners on the harsh punishments for slash-and-burning offences have discouraged potential wrongdoers.

”Now, when a small fire is detected, the authorities will quickly go and check, and when a fire is burning unattended, the land owner will get into trouble,” said 50-year-old Mr Subakir, who goes by one name.

The Indonesian authorities have continued to allow traditional farmers to use the slash-and-burn method but they impose conditions to prevent the fire from spreading. The area to be burned must not be more than one hectare, a water canal must be dug around it and the whole process must be supervised.

To reduce the chance of a fire growing bigger, the government has been gradually distributing tractors to fire-prone villages and regencies to help them clear vegetation.

Corn farmer Satiman who lives in Kalampangan, Central Kalimantan, told ST that he is a member of a group of 20 registered farmers who have access to such a tractor.

“Sometimes I use the tractor, sometimes I use my own hands,” said Mr Satiman, 52, who goes by a one-word name.

Companies operating in Indonesia, such as Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and oil palm grower Asian Agri, have stepped up their vigilance against possible fires.

In reply to an ST query, APP managing director Bernard Tan said: “El Nino looks increasingly that it will rear its ugly head this year for the first time since 2015, hence being prepared is crucial.”

APP has more than 2,000 trained firefighters on standby. They are equipped with 1,800 fire pumps, 800 land vehicles, 100 watercraft and 13 helicopters.

The team uses satellite data to predict weather conditions and to track hot spots in the company’s concession areas. It also uses watchtowers, mounted cameras, helicopter patrols and ground-based spotters to verify hot spots.

“This allows rapid response firefighting teams to better contain fires before they grow larger and become more difficult to put out,” said Mr Tan.

Asian Agri is providing a 100 million rupiah (S$8,800) reward to villages in Sumatra that manage to protect their areas from plantation and forest fires, head of corporate communications Coki Panjaitan told ST.

“Some communities have used these no-burn rewards to set up businesses, such as handicraft stalls and motorcycle wash stations,” he said.

Still, challenges come not only from the plantations.

As Mr Coki put it: ”Residents occasionally burn domestic trash and leaves in their backyards, which poses a risk of fire… We provide training on safer methods for domestic waste disposal.”

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