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Community firefighters tackle forest fire from grassroots

  • Lawrence Lilley

    The Jakarta Post

Palangkaraya | Tue, November 10, 2015 | 04:18 pm
Community firefighters tackle forest fire from grassroots In action: Local villagers and members of a standby fire squad extinguish smoldering peatland around the South Canal in Katingan.(Courtesy of PT Rimba Makmur Utama)" height="358" border="0" width="511">In action: Local villagers and members of a standby fire squad extinguish smoldering peatland around the South Canal in Katingan.(Courtesy of PT Rimba Makmur Utama)

The dawn still sheltered beneath the tropical forest-lined horizon in Kalimantan, as 24-year-old Maryadi Dayak Sanjaya yanked the throttle on a motorized canoe, angling its prow toward furtive trails of smoke that threatened to gather in the distance.

In the previous four months, Sanjaya had gone from being a fresh graduate from the University of Palangkaraya to coordinating the nascent fire prevention and suppression program within the Katingan Project, an effort to conserve one of the largest intact peat swamp forests remaining in Indonesia.

This was in late August 2014, as forest conservation groups braced themselves for an oncoming year that would witness the return of El Niño, a periodic weather phenomenon now in the throes of a particularly extreme episode.

The 1997-1998 El Niño resulted in the world’s then warmest year on record, with heightened dry conditions in Indonesia facilitating fires over an estimated 5 million hectares.

The current episode is set to make 2015 another record year, with the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) reporting nearly half of the country’s provinces suffering a water deficit by the end of July. Reduced rainfall fosters conditions conducive to the spread of forest fires, a critical threat to peat land conservation efforts.
On the spot: Forest-fire prevention team commander Asdi Nur Irawan surveys a patch of burned scrubland near the border of the Katingan Project conservation area in Central Kalimantan.(Lawrence Lilley)

In action: Local villagers and members of a standby fire squad extinguish smoldering peatland around the South Canal in Katingan.(Courtesy of PT Rimba Makmur Utama)

The dawn still sheltered beneath the tropical forest-lined horizon in Kalimantan, as 24-year-old Maryadi Dayak Sanjaya yanked the throttle on a motorized canoe, angling its prow toward furtive trails of smoke that threatened to gather in the distance.

In the previous four months, Sanjaya had gone from being a fresh graduate from the University of Palangkaraya to coordinating the nascent fire prevention and suppression program within the Katingan Project, an effort to conserve one of the largest intact peat swamp forests remaining in Indonesia.

This was in late August 2014, as forest conservation groups braced themselves for an oncoming year that would witness the return of El Niño, a periodic weather phenomenon now in the throes of a particularly extreme episode.

The 1997-1998 El Niño resulted in the world'€™s then warmest year on record, with heightened dry conditions in Indonesia facilitating fires over an estimated 5 million hectares.

The current episode is set to make 2015 another record year, with the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) reporting nearly half of the country'€™s provinces suffering a water deficit by the end of July. Reduced rainfall fosters conditions conducive to the spread of forest fires, a critical threat to peat land conservation efforts.
On the spot: Forest-fire prevention team commander Asdi Nur Irawan surveys a patch of burned scrubland near the border of the Katingan Project conservation area in Central Kalimantan.(Lawrence Lilley)On the spot: Forest-fire prevention team commander Asdi Nur Irawan surveys a patch of burned scrubland near the border of the Katingan Project conservation area in Central Kalimantan.(Lawrence Lilley)
Based in Central Kalimantan, the Katingan Project focuses on conserving a 149,800 hectare site that straddles the boundary between the districts of Katingan and Kotawaringin Timur, and flanked by the Mentaya and Katingan rivers; vast, twisting waterways that historically channeled countless rope-bound spoils of commercial logging to Kalimantan'€™s south coast, and along which reside 34 villages affected by the project.

To cross between the two main rivers, local communities utilize the South Canal, a 29-kilometer creek created in the 1990s by the local government, and in which a 6-kilometer stretch passes directly through the project concession area.

The project has been hugely threatened by the current forest fire crisis, which has blanketed large swathes of Indonesia in haze, bringing air pollution to hazardous levels and disrupting daily life locally and in neighboring countries, with the haze drifting as far as Thailand.

Last August in Katingan, Sanjaya'€™s burgeoning efforts to coordinate the project'€™s standby fire squads (RSA) were already challenged by an average of two to three hot spots per month.

As he pulled up to the side of the canal, several kilometers west of the concession area boundary, thick continuous shrubbery had become scorched earth.

 

However, the flames had been prevented from spreading further by local villagers and former farmers, who had organized into a network of forest-fire prevention teams.

'€œWe created a perimeter around the burning area using hoses connected to pump machines, so the fire didn'€™t widen further, then the flames were extinguished in one or two hours,'€ Sanjaya explained.

'€œBut the smoldering continues below the surface, within the peat. We drench the smoldering earth until there is no more burning.'€

With limited water in the canal, it can take up to a day to extinguish the largest flames, with subsurface burning remaining for up to three days.

Palm oil companies are deforestation'€™s most notorious culprits, but Sanjaya'€™s greatest concern going into an exceptionally dry season was fire from local residential areas, where people use burning to open fields for planting rice.

'€œBurning isn'€™t allowed in the concession area, but in community areas, we can'€™t stop them. The danger is that fire can spread with the wind, extending to forests within our concession. If we know where fires will start, we can look out for this and minimize their spread.'€

The rapidity of fires spreading through the vegetation was evidenced in the burned patch at hand, which had spread from villages 2 to 3 kilometers away.

Sanjaya claimed his biggest challenge was managing a cohort varying in age and skills.

Fire squads previously existed within two villages, but Sanjaya explained, '€œOnly if a big fire occurred would they take action. With the RSA, every day, rain or no rain, when there'€™s no fire, we are on standby. In my view, the RSAs'€™ task isn'€™t about extinguishing. We'€™re about building the mindset within the communities, the building of community understanding.'€

Over 60 villagers now participate, patrolling daily and monitoring the area 24/7 for smoke from posts around the canal, communicating via walkie-talkies.

Teams coordinate with heads of villages to help control fires, so before a farmer burns, they can ask the RSA to be on the look-out for fire spreading.

 '€œWe still don'€™t fully understand the importance of the RSA, but we participate,'€ said one of the team commanders, Asdi Nur Irawan. He formerly made his livelihood harvesting the sap of jelutong (gum) trees.

Working within the RSA provides ecologically beneficial economic livelihoods for villagers, but this approach recognizes the deeper result of the fire prevention program: lifting the collective knowledge base by increasing awareness of forest-fire prevention and engaging constructively with the surrounding peatland ecosystem.

Further plans include organizing teams within other villages in the region.

'€œWe see how the process is here and develop the model. We anticipate, so if there'€™s a fire, the team is ready. We must remain vigilant each day,'€ Sanjaya said.

The project will be sustained in the long term through the carbon credit market, conserving carbon stocks within the concession area.

With 41 percent of Indonesia'€™s 2005 greenhouse gas emissions originating from peatlands, which are highly rich carbon stores, protecting them against fire outbreaks and conversion to agriculture will be vital for meeting Indonesia'€™s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030.

Dharsono Hartono, the CEO of PT Rimba Makmur Utama, which manages the Katingan Project, said proudly that during this El Niño season, as of Oct. 15, zero hot spots had been detected within the high-risk area around the South Canal.

The government has spent over Rp 500 billion (US$37 million) and deployed over 20,000 police, military personnel and volunteers to combat the crisis.

However, the success of Sanjaya and local villagers'€™ pioneering efforts in the RSA demonstrate that community-based partnerships have a much larger part to play in combating the country'€™s forest fire crises during the ongoing El Niño and other episodes to come.

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