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Indonesia leads the way in taming forest fires

When volunteer firefighter Marlizar noticed smoke billowing over a quarter-hectare of peatland while on a routine patrol in 2019, he dispatched his colleague to their base in Riau province’s Teluk Maranti village, seven kilometres away, and faced the fire alone.

As Marlizar’s colleague sped off to retrieve a clunky hose unit, the 42-year-old attempted to beat back the flames with a tree branch while alerting the disaster management agency. Experience had taught him how to stay safe from smoke inhalation. “The only thing on my mind was what could I do to stop the fire from spreading, he says.”

Despite Marlizar’s valiant efforts, the flames had engulfed five hectares within an hour. In the two more hours it took for the hose unit to arrive—transported by speed boat, then hefted on several fire-fighters’ shoulders—the peatlands were ablaze as far as he could see. 

In Teluk Meranti, in the following days and weeks, schools, airports, and government offices were forced to close as smoke thickened the air.

Losses in the billions

Indonesia’s 2019 wildfires burned 3.1 million hectares, an area bigger than Belgium, blanketed six other countries in smoky haze, released almost 604 million tonnes of CO2 and caused some 900,000 people to report respiratory illnesses. The fires also inflicted $5.2 billion in losses in Indonesia, according to the World Bank, adding to the US$16 billion caused by even larger fires in 2015.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) worse is still to come; the UN body expects a 14 per cent increase in forest fires globally by 2030 due to a mixture of climate change and changing land use.

But in Indonesia, a UNEP-led integrated fire management pilot project, financed by USAID, has, since 2021, helped build greater fire resistance in three of the country’s most fire-prone districts. 

It draws inspiration from a “cluster-based” approach towards land management practiced in South Africa—bringing together the knowhow of community fire-fighting brigades like Marlizar’s, the reach of government agencies, and the resources of some of Indonesia’s largest private companies. 

The project’s aim of enhancing coordination between community, government, and private land users could hold lessons for fire-prone countries around the world.

“Forest fires inflict massive humanitarian, environmental and economic costs, especially when they occur on carbon-rich peatlands, so it’s in everyone’s interest to prevent them from breaking out,” says UNEPs programme officer Johan Kief. “Indonesia has set ambitious goals on halting deforestation and reducing carbon emissions—reducing the risk of fires is a key component of achieving them.”

Volunteer firefighter Marlizar in Teluk Meranti Village, Riau.

Volunteer firefighter Marlizar in Teluk Meranti Village, Riau.

Putting out the flames

After UNEP began forming fire prevention clusters in 2021, no fire hotspots were found in the first pilot district, Central Kalimantan’s Pulang Pisau, in the 2022 dry season. In Riau’s Pelalawan district, where Teluk Maranti is located, the number of reported fires decreased from 139 in 2021 to 88 in 2022. In South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, the third pilot area, the number of reported fires declined from 345 to 109.

Based on the results achieved in the initial three pilot districts, the project is expanding to a further six priority districts, with the aim of eventually implementing the approach nationwide.

“The efficacy of collaborative approaches to fire prevention has been proven through these clusters. Sharing the experience of these three districts not just in Indonesia, but also to other peat-rich and fire-prone countries in Latin America and southern Africa, is a contribution from Indonesia to the world,” said Bambang Suryaputra, Head of the Centre for Operation Control at Indonesia’s disaster prevention agency, BNPB.

Indonesia has the third largest area of forest cover in the world, behind only Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as with elsewhere on an archipelago that was 84 per cent forest in 1900, the road that leads from Riau’s provincial capital Pekabaru to the UNEP pilot district Palalawan, today tells the story of how industry and agriculture has led the forest to recede. Kilometre after kilometre, the cacophony of jungle has been replaced with uniform blocks of squat glossy green oil palm, spindly brown acacia, and white dappled rubber.

Ms. Ernawati, a former volunteer fire fighter who heads a local farmers’ groupin Teluk Meranti, Riau

Ms. Ernawati, a former volunteer fire fighter who heads a local farmers’ groupin Teluk Meranti, Riau

Clustered together

At least 14 companies hold concessions in Palalawan district. One of the largest is paper and pulp maker APRIL, with some 150,000 hectares of acacia estate. Most fires in Palalawan break out on community rather than company land, APRIL’s deputy chief of fire and emergency response, Mr. Yuneldi says, but even when fires occur outside the company’s estate, APRIL has sent its ample resources, equipment, and personnel to assist the police and military in putting down fires.

Equipped with satellite imaging and real time weather tracking technology, the resources at APRIL’s fire centre are a far cry from those available to community firefighters like Marlizar and his team, who gauge the dryness of the peatland they patrol by the way it falls through their fingers.

It is these differences in resources that UNEP’s cluster approach is designed to address, through developing an integrated strategy to take on a challenge that affects everyone.

In Teluk Meranti, community-based awareness raising efforts are paying off: new signage cautions fishers and bird hunters against tossing cigarette butts or starting cooking fires, and farmers have a better understand of the risks involved in burning dry peatland. 

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