The head of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) is slowly but definitively showing progress in the uphill battle faced by this institution.
“I was nervous,” Nazir Foead told The Palm Scribe when asked how he had felt when appointed as head of the newly-established Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) by President Joko Widodo on January 29, 2016.
“But the president was very clear and firm regarding the task assigned to us. We are ready to do whatever we can, using whatever efforts and faced whatever the risks. This is a noble endeavor,” Foead said at his office in Menteng, Central Jakarta.
In a regulation he issued, the president ordered BRG to restore peatland in Indonesia which had been damaged, including by fire. This ad-hoc institution which is directly responsible to the president, was also instructed to reduce the risk of ground and forest fires in peat areas.
Indonesia experienced its worst fire calamity in 2015 when an estimated 875,000 hectares of peatland caught fire. The incident not only caused suffering to people in the affected provinces but also impacted neighboring countries.
President Joko Widodo then issued a moratorium on peatland in 2015, prohibiting any opening of peatland until the BRG had fully mapped the damaged areas.
As an initial plan, BRG set itself the target of restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of peat soil within five years. This included 332,766 hectares in conservation areas, almost 1,5 million hectares in concessions areas and another 748,818 hectares in various other important areas.
“Peat areas were destroyed because of the building of large canals. This includes areas where companies hold permits to operate. The complexity of the problem arose because local governments granted permits to these companies to open up peat areas. There are also illegal logging in government-owned land, as well as people who have been farming on peat soil for years,” Foead said.
It was then decided that the initial restoration project would be limited to the seven provinces deemed to have the most serious cases of peatland destruction — Riau, Jambi, South Sumatera, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, and Papua.
To achieve the restoration target BRG is involving the participation of related institutions, experts, universities and is working in coordination with foreign donors and philanthropic institutions because what it was doing was actually related to the climate change problem that is threatening many countries.
After completing the mapping of the peat soil, BRG will work with the local governments to build canal dams before the arrival of the dry season. The damming of the canals is necessary to keep the peat soil, highly inflammable when dry, adequately wet so that it does not catch fire.
“We have been instructed to involve local communities as much as possible, so that they can also benefit from this,” Foead said, adding that President Jokowi witnessed himself how people were involved in the building of these partitions in Meranti, Riau Province in 2014, where local people have planted peatland areas with sago palms for many years.
By end of 2018, BRG had managed to restore more than 679,901 hectares of peat land in the seven provinces. Part of this restoration process, covering 268,472 hectares, was conducted with various partners under the direct supervision of BRG.
Nazir Foead graduated from the Forestry Department of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta in 1985, five years after President Joko Widodo graduated from the same program at the same university. Foead then continued his study on Sustainable Forestry in Gottingen University, Germany and received his M.Sc in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, England.
Different Actors, Different Approaches
Foead understood that some people still have a strong skepticism, linking ground and forest fires to large companies opening up land for new plantation, including for oil palm.
“What has happened in the past should remain in the past. The current government is trying to seek the best solution because we also are in support of this commodity. Do not worry, we do not want to kill this industry because it is also important to Indonesia. We want to maintain our competitive advantage and therefore, let us work together in this matter,” he firmly told The Palm Scribe.
“Companies holding Cultivation Rights Titles (HGU) or even farmers who do so, we have to respect them,” the glass-wearing Foead said, adding that besides regulating the sector, the government should also be able to provide solutions to the problems faced by the companies regarding their land permits.
But he also pointed out that a number of oil palm companies were planting on peat domes which are essentially fully protected by law.
The law prohibits opening up peat domes because they act as important water reservoirs for their surrounding area.
“The damage is already done. Therefore, what we are trying now is to find the middle way and allow the plantation to remain on the peat domes until the expiry of their planting cycle. But we urge them to have a good water management as ideally, the water level should not be less than 40 cm under the ground,” he said.
“I am convinced that oil palm companies also do not want to see their crop catch fire. But during the dry season, fire can also come from outside of their plantation and therefore, all sides should be able to ascertain that their peat land remain always wet,” he said.
Regardless of the arguments on how high the ideal water level should be, many empirical data and researches show that 40 cm is the best for peat land (just as is stipulated in the Presidential Decree of 2014 that was later reinforced by another decree in 2016). Although making sure that the water level remain at that level would pose additional financial burden to the companies, Foead expressed optimism that in the future, this would be beneficial for the productivity of the crop itself.
“Most companies abide by this regulation,” Foead said.
According to him BRG has no enforcement authority. It can only receive reports and complaints from the public, referring to the opening of peatland or the digging of new canals. It then has to verify the reports and if warranted, submit it to the Environment and Forestry Ministry, or the local administration, which actually hold the authority to enforce the law.
As it is already widely known, President Joko Widodo is stressing the importance of boosting the oil palm productivity, including through replanting, rather than by expanding plantations.
“In this matter, Indonesia clearly wants to prove to the world, that we have halted deforestation. If it is still happening, that must be illegal and we have the law enforcement mechanism to deal with. This is our best response to criticism from overseas,” Foead said.
“If we can show that our palm oil is produced through a good water management system, does not involve deforestation, has a lower resulting emission, then all boycotts and criticism will become irrelevant,” he added.
Foead explained how Indonesians also have a lot of local wisdom in cultivating on peat land without damaging it. BRG, he said, is trying to harmonize these practices with what his organization had to do. Damage, must of course, be repaired at a high cost, but with consistent efforts and determination, he was confident that the targeted restoration of 2.5 million hectares of peat land could be reached.
He also believed that the involvement of communities and villages is a must because much of their water needs relied on or are supplied by the peat land.
“That is why peat domes should not be touched, because they represent a source of water for many villages in Indonesia,” he said.
With the ongoing climate change, it was also felt as important to raise the awareness on this issue among all stakeholders.
“Traditional farmers can provide me with their analysis on why they think forest can burn, even though they have practiced this for all their life. They know that the changes introduced by the companies which have been building large canals and dried out the peat land, has also changed their traditional knowledge on how to open up forest areas that they have known all their life,” he said.
Finance Matters, Partnership Too
The institution led by Foead, operates with a budget of between Rp300 billion and Rp500 billion taken from the state budget, supplemented by another $30 million to $40 million in grants per year. The total, about Rp1 trillion, is actually only a fifth of the real required fund that stands between Rp5 trillion to Rp6 trillion.
“That is why we work with a priority scale, based on assessment on how serious are the damage in a particular peat area and this has proven very effective in the past two years,” he said.
The shortage in funding has forced this institution to be creative in its financing and also to build strong partnership on the field. Its international partners include the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Indonesia Climate Change Trust Fund (ICCTF) and non-governmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
The involvement of local administration and communities also creates a stronger sense of belonging, including in maintaining and safeguarding what had been achieved. On the technical front, these involvements are also important in making sure that equipment, such as water pumps, are always kept in good running conditions to be able to maintain a stable degree of wetness of the peat soil.
BRG data showed that in 2018, more than 11,000 people were involved in various activities.
It has also established a task force to provide technical assistance and advices to companies. This task force also learns about the best practices from other countries, such as Finland and the United States, and then disperse the obtained knowledge within the network it has built.
Ending the interview, The Palm Scribe asked Foead: “What have you learned after being almost three years at the helm of BRG?”
“First, I think the best solution needs the involvement of experts from various science disciplines because they nearly do not have personal interests. Second, even though not too ideal, we need to do what we can do as fast as we can, of course following this with improvements from time to time. Third, we want to be recognized internationally, that Indonesia can lead the biggest tropical peat land restoration efforts in the world,” he said.