The United Nations has proclaimed May 22 the International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. As one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems, peatlands support diverse species, including orangutans. Yet until recently, peatlands were drained and set ablaze for agriculture, producing an ecological catastrophe that sparked the need for change.
It’s now been three years since massive fires ravaged Indonesia in one of the worst environmental disasters of our century.
The blazes in 2015 scorched 2.6 million hectares across the archipelago, and produced toxic haze that blanketed neighboring countries Singapore and Malaysia. Thousands fell ill, and the Indonesian government suffered $16 billion in economic losses – more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, according to the World Bank.
What ignited this catastrophe? More importantly, what is being done to prevent it from reoccurring?
Beads of sweat trickled down Udeng’s face as he hauled a heavy hose across the field during a practice drill with his fellow firefighters.
The 45-year-old father of four is from Tumbang Nusa, a village located in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province on Borneo that was an epicenter of the 2015 disaster.
“The fires were very bad,” he said. “I’m here to do my part to make sure they don’t happen again.” At the time, Udeng’s kids fell ill with asthma and his wife evacuated them to a neighboring village for almost a month because their home became inhospitable.
Spurred to action, Udeng joined Indonesia’s network of district-level volunteer firefighting brigades, known as “Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA)”, which are formed by local village heads. Although Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry established a Forest Fire Brigade at the national level called the “Manggala Agni (MA)”, its capacity is frequently overextended given its vast mandate. This makes the volunteers invaluable. Yet many of them lack proper training and equipment given the informal nature of their units.
To remedy this, in May, intensive training was conducted for 66 volunteer firefighters from six of Central Kalimantan’s most fire-prone villages under the UN Environment project “Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilization of Tropical Peatlands (GAMBUT)”, which is funded by USAID and operated by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).
The training was facilitated by highly experienced South African firefighters from the Working on Fire Program who first came to Indonesia in 2015 to assist with the disaster, and have since been collaborating with the UN Environment project as a key partner to increase knowledge exchange and sharing between the two Southern Hemisphere countries.
“Teaching the technical skills is the easy part,” said Trevor Wilson, Executive Director of Working on Fire. “The biggest challenge is changing the way local people think about fire, so the course stresses 80 per cent fire prevention and only 20 per cent fire suppression, because the best fires are the ones that never happen.”
Peat as tinderboxes
For decades, Indonesia's smallholder farmers have been using fire to clear land for crops to produce commodities like palm oil, of which Indonesia is now the world’s biggest producer. But intentional fires often spiral out of control, particularly during the annual dry season.
Particularly problematic is when these fires ignite on peatland. Peat is comprised of 90 per cent water and 10 per cent organic matter (decaying plants underwater). Peat fires can thus smolder underground for weeks. They are nearly impossible to put out without heavy rains.
“Peatlands need to remain underwater. If you drain them, you are left with a pile of organic materials like leaves and branches, which are extremely flammable,” said Johan Kieft, Lead Technical Advisor for the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia, an initiative by UN Environment, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
Of the 2.6 million hectares that burned between June-October 2015, 33 per cent occurred on peatlands. When the wildfires broke out, they were exacerbated by an El Niño year that caused an unusually severe dry spell. In normal circumstances, the wildfires would have abated after a few weeks, but in 2015, they raged for months.
Peat and climate change
After the 2015 crisis put a global spotlight on peatlands, Indonesia responded by banning the use of fire in clearing peatlands, establishing a national Peatlands Restoration Agency (BRG), as well as pledging to restore 2 million hectares of peatlands by 2020.
The UN-REDD Programme is working closely with Indonesia to raise awareness about peatlands, given that the country is home to half of the world’s tropical peatlands.
Peat is one of nature's most effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and stocking it underground, making it crucial to the fight against climate change. On the flip side, when drained and set ablaze, they can release 10 times more carbon than forest fires.
“By preserving peat, we preserve precious carbon because peat is the largest terrestrial carbon stock in the world,” said Kieft.
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