TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - After seeing a decline in severe incidents of forest and land clearing fires in the past three years, parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan are once again smothered by toxic smoke. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) has chalked the thick smoke up to the near lack of rain and the massive expanse of peatland being on fire.
Fingers were immediately pointed at the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), a non-structural agency set up by President Joko Widodo in 2015 in the wake of the devastating forest fire – the worst ecological disaster since 1997 – which destroyed 2.67 million hectares of peatland and caused Rp221 trillion in losses. The agency was tasked to rewet the 2.5 million hectares parched peatlands in seven provinces across Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua, to prevent the repeat of the disaster. With the mandate until 2020, the agency has so far restored 679,000 hectares.
It now seems the agency’s three years’ worth of work has also gone up in smoke. The BNPB stated that the fire has razed around 27 percent of the peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan or 89,000 of the total 328,000 hectares as per the end of August. The number is not a far cry from the 29 percent of the 2015 inferno. Many environmental institutions view the agency a failure. Nazir Foead, BRG’s chief, begged to differ. “The restoration helped minimize the fires but the ones that were not yet restored burned too ferociously,” Nazir, 52, said in a special interview with Tempo last Thursday.
In between his frenzied schedule due to the haze emergency, Nazir sat down with Tempo’s Stefanus Pramono, Reza Maulana and Aisha Shaidra at a Kuningan cafe in Central Jakarta. In the interview that went on for over two hours, the former director of conversation for WWF Indonesia explained the complexity in fixing the peatland ecosystems, his anger at perpetrators behind the fires and his dream to drive economic activities in the peatlands. “If economic activities run well, people won’t be tempted to burn the lands,” reasoned the forestry graduate of the Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. Excerpts:
Some environmental institutions view that the 2019 haze disaster cannot be separated from the failure in restoring the peatlands. What is your response?
I disagree. I reiterate that the data shows few hotspots in the areas that we have restored. So, the restoration helped minimize the fires but the ones that were not yet restored burned too ferociously.
In reality, the percentage of the burned peatland is not very different from that of the 2015 disaster.
Yes, we have to acknowledge that the progress has not been optimal, however, there is no fire at all in the areas where we intervened. For example, in Riau, we prepared data tabulations for each village complete with the location of canals, canal partitions and the description of the burned areas. On average, 30 percent of it was almost burned and the remaining 70 percent was not. So, the comparison is one to two. The burned areas were also located only in the outskirts of villages they share the borders with.
Two percent of the total area targeted for restoration.
How crucial is peat in the land fires?
Unquestionably crucial. Three years ago, I consulted with an American forest fire expert. Throughout his career in America, he said he only dealt with wildfires. There, when there are peatland fires, only the melting snow in spring – around April – can extinguish them. Similar to downpours in Indonesia. Meanwhile, fires usually break out in July-August. So, they have to wait for eight months. In fact, the thickness of their peat layer is only about three meters. Compare it to ours which has tens of meters in thickness
Doesn’t America have advanced fire-fighting technologies such as aerial water bombing?
I asked him about that and he laughed. He said that it served only to give the impression that the personnel were working, (laughs)...Aerial bombing only douses the surface fire but the fire continues to burn underneath.
Does it mean the government’s planned artificial rain will be futile?
No, as long as it is heavy. It also depends on how long the areas have been burning. It will be able to put out newly ignited fires but beyond that, we would still need manual extinguishing which involves keeping the nozzle of the hose underground and spraying the ground. One can also water the ground the usual way but taking several minutes in each patch of land.
There are reports saying that the hotspots originated in oil palm plantations. How come?
There are in the concession areas, but small. Likewise, in the industrial plantation forest concession lands. In general, they are caused by fires from adjacent areas. Bigger fires are outside the concession areas.
What does the peatland restoration agency think started the fire?
Pak Doni (BNPB Chief Doni Monardo) said that 99 percent was caused by humans. I say 90 percent of the fires was intentional and only nine percent was accidental as per the finding of the coordination meeting with the BNPB participated by peat and forest fire experts last April.
Were they intentionally set to clear land?
Yes. What’s worse is they were done by tycoons, because the fires are massive.
Do you know their identities?
Wait and see who plant there later. They are people with influence, either economically or politically. They have the capital to mobilize a certain number of people to simultaneously torch hundreds of hectares of lands. We have to find the perpetrators including their financial sponsors. Who are they? The police have more information.
In reality, many investigations and lawsuits against these suspects are dropped.
I don’t want to comment on that.
Read the full interview in Tempo English Magazine