Preparing for a different approach to preventing wildfires in Indonesia

Preparing for a different approach to preventing wildfires in Indonesia

Indonesia - 06 July, 2022

In Ketapang, Indonesia, fires keep recurring on drained peatlands, with devastating effects. Preventing them requires restoring water levels, but government officials, companies and farmers have long resisted this approach, fearing it would compromise the economy. In 2021, Tropenbos Indonesia managed to change their minds — a crucial first step towards structural fire prevention.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In Indonesia, recurring fires result in environmental destruction, greenhouse gas emissions and economic losses. Moreover, the haze causes widespread health problems and tensions with neighbouring countries. Fires are especially severe in peatlands that were logged and drained. Drained peat is highly flammable, providing a huge supply of fuel for fires. In the past, the government opened up these areas for agriculture and transmigration, without a clear understanding of the risks this entailed. Today, fires keep returning, with devastating effects.

Ketapang District in West Kalimantan has large areas of drained peat that are designated as agricultural lands. Fires occur every year, mostly in abandoned areas, where fire is used to clear the vegetation to prepare for cultivation. The fires often get out of control, and spread into neighbouring areas, causing a lot of damage. In 2020, the Ketapang District government approached Tropenbos Indonesia to develop a strategy for fire prevention and suppression. For Tropenbos Indonesia, it was clear that the focus should be on structurally reducing fire risks. This would require restoring the peatlands into a humid state by blocking existing drainage canals and improving water management.

However, Tropenbos Indonesia soon found out that the term “peatland restoration” raised a lot of suspicion among stakeholders in the landscape, who thought of it as a conservation effort that would ultimately have negative consequences for the economy. To achieve structural change, these stakeholders needed to be brought on board, but this felt like fighting an uphill battle.

In 2021 the efforts of Tropenbos Indonesia received a major boost when the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved an initiative to reduce wildfire risks as part of the Working Landscapes programme. This allowed Tropenbos Indonesia to step up its efforts. It managed to facilitate an agreement between the district government and the national Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency, which opened the door for additional resources from the national government. At the same time, Tropenbos Indonesia successfully lobbied the district government to formalize a special taskforce, ensuring the commitment of the relevant government agencies to work with other stakeholders on the prevention of fires. The taskforce, together with a widely felt urgency, brought government agencies, NGOs, companies and smallholders around the table, with Tropenbos Indonesia as the convenor.

Considered a neutral and trusted partner by all other stakeholders, Tropenbos Indonesia managed to gradually introduce the concept of peatland restoration to the taskforce members. Part of this effort was to show that rewetting would not compromise the production of existing plantations. By treating the topic carefully, listening to all the stakeholders’ concerns, and sharing information, Tropenbos Indonesia managed to get the message across. By the end of 2021, all taskforce members agreed that fire prevention would have to be based on peatland restoration. This was a key achievement, providing the foundation for the actual rewetting of the peatlands, to eventually reduce the risk of fires there.

***