Traditional slash-and-burn practices 'don't cause haze', say Dayak communities in West Kalimantan

A fire at an oil palm plantation in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Sumatra, on Aug 14, 2018.
A fire at an oil palm plantation in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Sumatra, on Aug 14, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The period between July and August is a busy time for 46-year-old Nobelius and dozens of other traditional farmers from the Dayak Iban ethnic community in Kapuas Hulu regency, West Kalimantan.

These farmers will go to their respective farmlands to clear them using the slash-and-burn method before planting paddy seeds.

"This tradition has been preserved for hundreds of years, but no wildfire or haze disasters have occurred (from the practice)," Mr Nobelius told The Jakarta Post recently.

The slash-and-burn method is part of a Dayak traditional ritual called gawai, carried out by people of Iban communities spread across West Kalimantan and some parts of Sarawak in Malaysia to mark the start of the farming season. A similar tradition can also be found in more than 200 sub-ethnic groups of Dayak across Kalimantan, as most of the people work as farmers.

Before slashing and burning an area, farmers from Iban communities work together to clear the area of dried branches and leaves to prevent the fire spreading to nearby forests.

An ethnic leader would sprinkle blessed water on the cleared land before igniting the fire.

"Farmers also make sure the fire has been put out completely before leaving the area. The ashes are later used to fertilise paddy and other plants (later planted in the farm area)," Mr Nobelius said.

The Dayak Kualan community in Ketapang regency has a traditional customary law called palayo to punish traditional farmers found guilty of burning neighbouring lands or forests. Under the law, farmers are ordered to pay a fine in the form of a live chicken for a traditional ceremony, or money, according to the level of damage that he or she inflicted.

 
 

Dayak Kualan community member, 49-year-old Thomas Tion, said it was unlikely that traditional farmers and smallholders could cause rampant wildfires leading to haze as they chose mineral soil over peatland to be converted into agricultural land.

On mineral soil, smoke tends to disappear 15 to 30 minutes after the fire has gone out, while fire on peatland is harder to extinguish.

Their claim dismissed an earlier statement made by National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho recently, saying forest fires in several regions across the province were caused by the gawai tradition. He did not explicitly mention the Dayak tribe, but the communities were offended, as the gawai tradition was a strong reference to their group.

Mr Sutopo later apologised and retracted his statement after it triggered uproar within the communities.

"I did not intend to insult the communities. I apologise to Dayak communities across the country for my mistake," Mr Sutopo said.

Mr Thomas said the haze disaster had started to occur in the area in the 1990s, during which time many parts of the forests across West Kalimantan were converted into farms and plantations by large corporations.

Over the weekend, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) revealed its findings, stating that 201 hotspots out of 790 found across the province were located in concession areas.

As of Thursday (Aug 30) morning, the number of hotspots in West Kalimantan, the province with the most hotspots during recent wildfires, had decreased, as the BNPB detected only two hotspots with medium-level of confidence in the province.

According to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), the most hotpots detected in the province was 747, recorded on Aug 22.

Apart from extinguishing the fires, the authorities have also been working to investigate responsible parties. As of Thursday, the West Kalimantan Police were investigating 25 cases of fires, naming 35 people as suspects - most of whom were smallholders.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry is also investigating the alleged roles of corporations in recent wildfires, by sealing off land owned by five holders of plantation concessions in Kubu Raya after the authorities discovered fires in the concession areas.

"Our investigators have summoned the concession owners in the initial phase of the investigation," the ministry's Law Enforcement Director General Rasio Ridho Sani said recently.