How Did 10 Riau Villages Thrice the Size of Singapore “Escape” the Forest Fires?

In Forest, Haze
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Zainuddin, WWF-Indonesia’s peatland manager in Sumatra, contributed reporting.

Just so you know, it was 99.9% hard work and a pinch of luck. 

When the severe haze reached our little red dot four years ago, I could vividly remember how it had disrupted our daily lives.

For one, I was massively annoyed that I couldn’t have my outdoor runs. I hated the gym. Second, the “best-selling” N95 masks were perpetually sold out in convenience stores across Singapore. How could I then ensure my family and I were not breathing in toxic particles?

The only thing I was secretly happy about: being sent home after arriving in office because apparently, the air had reached dangerous levels.

WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THE 2015 HAZE CRISIS?

If you are keen on a little #throwback to the transboundary haze crisis in 2015, read on for a refresher. 

It was late September, and the Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) had reached the highest level of 341, a number considered to be hazardous to health. 

During the severe haze in Singapore, schools and businesses had to close.
© Rachel Chew / WWF

The schools were forced to close. Fast-food chains had to stop their delivery services. And who could ever forget about the FINA Swimming World Cup finals that were cancelled? 

Cleared land was often burned to make way for planting. This was the fastest and most economical way to grow not only palm oil — the world’s most-produced, consumed and traded vegetable oil — but pulpwood for paper. What most did not realise: degraded peatland increased the likelihood of forest fires.

According to the Jakarta Post interview with Greenpeace Indonesia spokesperson Yuyun Indradi, she claimed that nearly three-quarters of hotspots in Riau are in peatland areas, and 75 per cent of all peatland fires in Indonesia took place in the province.

This explained why the Bengkalis village, a sub-district in the Riau province made such a critical area for fire intervention. 

In mid-2014, Bengkalis topped the charts with the highest number of hotspots of 1,454 in Riau but had since decreased to a low 302 in 2015 thanks to collaborative attempts made by the local communities to prevent and fight the fires. 

As such, WWF recognised that there was nothing more urgent than gearing up on actions to mitigate the fires by rewetting the burnt peatland.

By mid-2016, we had successfully identified 10 target villages covering 210,000 hectares at Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu (GSK-BB) landscape in Riau that needed urgent protection.

The 10 target villages: Tanjung Leban, Sepahat, Api Api, Tenggayun, Buruk Bakul, Batang Duku, Pakning Asal, Sejangat, Dompas, Pangkalan Jambi.

To put into perspective, the total area of fire intervention was three times larger than Singapore. 

These areas were then affirmed by a governmental agency Badan Restorasi Gambut (BRG) as critical fire intervention areas. 

Disclaimer: The data above showed the impact of WWF’s ongoing efforts in helping to mitigate forest fires in Bukit Batu, one of WWF’s areas of intervention. This is based on satellite readings (source: https://firms.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov).

But it was not without intensive hard work and collaborative efforts among WWF, communities, partners and authorities that started in end-2016.

Prior to that, the formed community firefighters called the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA) had less stringent standard operating procedures. Patrolling the area was on a voluntary basis as there was not adequate equipment and resources. In some villages, the only equipment they had was water pumps to collect water. 

Zero hotspots were detected in the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu (GSK-BB) landscape as of 9 September.

“During the hot season, we will not only patrol the areas twice a day, but we will also remind the villagers, like fishermen who smoke, to be more careful about triggering the fires. Fire mitigation is better than fighting to put out the fires,” explained Ismail, the leader of the firefighters in Tanjung Leban village.

After WWF stepped in to collectively work with the government and authorities in 2016, we were not only able to support them with eight units of fire extinguishers that were shared among the 10 villages, monitoring work and training became compulsory. 

Ticked in green are the 10 villages under WWF’s area of intervention. Our preventive work started at the end of 2016.
(source: https://firms.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov).

ARMING THE VILLAGERS WITH FIREFIGHTING EQUIPMENT AND CAPABILITIES

By July 2017, we trained 122 local villagers including 32 firefighters to mitigate, monitor and suppress the fires. 12 fresh graduates were also trained as volunteers.

“I hope this initiative and WWF’s help can continue to train the firefighters to mitigate the fires to the lowest number of occurrences as possible,” said Basri, a government representative from an environmental department in Riau. 

The firefighters helped put out a small-scale fire incident at Dompas village on 9 May 2019.
© WWF- Indonesia

Designed and conceptualised by WWF, more training topics like canal-blocking engineering design was conducted this year. The result: canal-blocking structures that helped increase groundwater in nearby areas to optimally rewet peatland and decrease the likelihood of forest fires. 

As of today, the firefighters had built 35 canal-blocking structures.

“Peatland will not catch fire if there is an adequate amount of water. Rewetting the burnt peatland is the most important first step to mitigate fires. Improvement of the overall ecosystem and peatland restoration in the area will follow suit,” said Zainuddin from WWF-Indonesia who oversees peatland work in Sumatra, Indonesia.

All the firefighters in the 10 villages had received such training.
© WWF- Indonesia

Most recently, a growing number of women had also joined as a firefighter when small-scale fire incidents were reported six times in six villages that occurred from January to June this year. Their tasks include patrolling and rewetting the peatland. 

This is Susanti, one of the female firefighters who had to rewet the burnt peatland three days after a fire incident in March 2019.
© WWF- Indonesia

The increasing active involvement of the community was not only encouraging but contagious. The supply of fairly modern firefighting equipment had boosted the level of confidence of firefighters.

A WEB-BASED FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM TO INCREASE COMMUNITY AWARENESS 

In April 2017, we conducted a stakeholder meeting including the government and local NGO partners to discuss peatland restoration and fire mitigation. 

In line with the rule of the village, four out of the 10 villages had already agreed on fire-free policies. However, keeping the villages safe from fires was still the responsibility of all.

The meeting outcome resulted in Riaubiru.com, a web-based fire information system created by WWF and Riau University Centre for Disaster Studies.

The website had not only made it easier for the community firefighters to monitor hotspots — fire mitigation would be much more effective. 

Abu Bakar, the head of the firefighters’ programme in Sepahat village, remained hopeful, “On behalf of the firefighters, we hope that as we monitor the hotspots information, we would be able to work very closely and collaboratively with our community to keep our villages safe from the fires in the future.”

A small fire had broken out in Sepahat village in March due to human activities like collecting honey.
© WWF- Indonesia

The hotspot updates on the website would provide the public and government with better insights into the problems of peat protection, and most importantly, push for actions that will require their engagements. 

It also functioned as a learning site on peatland restoration for the community. 

ENHANCED PLANS TO RESTORE PEATLANDS ARE ON TRACK

Blocking the existing canals on peatlands was the best way to protect them. 

After the canal-blocking structures were constructed, the next step was to replant at least 15 hectares of the landscape with plants that would grow well on peatland. Trees including hardwood and rubber mixed with fruit species were planted to restore and conserve wildlife habitats in the area.

Villagers would also be able to reap the harvests.

The restoration activity to ensure the recovery of degraded peatlands was greatly appreciated by the local authorities and stakeholders. 

“I am glad that WWF has chosen our areas including Bukit Batu for restoration work. I hope that we will be able to restore the degraded peatland and revegetate the areas,” said Afrizal, the head of the Bandar Laksamana sub-district. 

We have planted 6,000 trees since our first replanting activity in April 2019.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, CAN WE AVOID A REPEAT OF THE 2015 HAZE CRISIS?

Yes, we can.

The project in Bengkalis, Riau clearly shows that it is possible to stop the burning and deforestation. However, it is an expensive and difficult task. The remaining forests in Sumatra need to stay intact and protected by all means for the sake of wildlife, the climate and communities benefiting from forests and clean air.

But as I am typing this, thousands of hectares are burning in Sumatra right now.

That’s the responsibility of the governments and businesses that own, operate and oversee these forests. Strengthened law enforcement against peat burners and illegal unsustainable deforestation still remain pivotal. Businesses have to eliminate any deforestation from their supply chains. 

“Peatland restoration is an uphill task. The most important thing is to mitigate peatland fires by collaborating closely with the community and stakeholders including the government, partners and WWF,” said Zainuddin, WWF-Indonesia’s peatland manager in Sumatra. 

Help us get ahead of the fires by protecting one of the most biodiverse forests in the world here.

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