This article was first published in The Forest Scribe, a sister website.
An environmental watchdog is finding that almost half of the forest and ground fires that hit Indonesia in 2019 were in peat land and therefore stressed that this ecosystem warranted more attention so that it could play an important role in fire prevention this year.
“We found that 44 percent of fires in 2019 took place in peat ecosystems or covering more than 700,000 hectares,” Fadli Ahmad Naufal, Geographical Information System Specialits with Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan (Madani) said Wednesday (13/5).
Speaking during an online discussion on forest and ground fires organized by Madani, Naufal said that data also showed that the provinces and districts with the most fires all had expansive peatland were also on the government’s priority list for peatland restauration.
South Sumatra topped the list of provinces with the most fires in 201i with 343,350 hectares affected while Central Kalimantan came second with 318,460 hectares. Both provinces were priorities for peat restoration programs, Naufal said.
Meanwhile, Ogan Komering Ulu in South Sumatra was the district with the most serious fires, affecting 194,300 hectares, followed by Merauke in Papua with 107,450 hectares. Ogan Komering Ulu has been on the priority list for peat restauration since 2016.
“What is of concern and must also be given our attention is that the majority (of the fires in peat land), 54 percent, were in peat ecosystems with protection functions,” Naufal added.
In the 2019 fires, which Naufal labeled as the second largest after the 2015 fires, 60 percent of the fires in oil palm concessions were in peat areas while in industrial timber estates, fires in peat areas accounted for 49 percent of fires there.
“It is proven that peat still is an area that we must accord attention to, because the reality is that they still are burning,” Naufal said.
In a press release issued after the discussion, Madani said that because of the important role peat ecosystem could play in preventing fires, “then peat restauration must absolutely be one of the main strategies of the government and of concession holders in preventing forest and ground fires in 2020.”
Medi Herlianto, Director for Disaster Mitigation with the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said during the same discussion that fire prevention was crucial in peat areas because once they catch fires, it is very difficult to extinguish them. Hard rains are the best way to douse fires in peat land, as fires in peat seams could linger for years underground and spark fires anew if the conditions are there,
Herlianto said that prevention could be done by assuring that the peat soil remained well wet, through good water management using crisscrossing canals.
The data study by Madani also showed that more than one million hectares of land that had burned in 2019, or about 63 percent, were areas that burned for the first time.
The three provinces with the most fires last year – South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan were also the three provinces with the most new areas that caught fire for the first time last year. Central Kalimantan had 202,400 of new areas burned, South Sumatra 185,100 hectares and West Kalimantan 125,050 hectares.
Data from the Directorate General for Plantations showed that those three provinces were also provinces which saw the highest growth in oil palm plantations in the 2015-2018 period. Naufal said West Kalimantan saw oil palm plantation grow by an annual average of more than 129,000 hectares, Central Kalimantan with more than 123,000 hectares and South Sumatra with more than 78,000 hectares per year.,
“That means that there is a correlation between new burned areas in the three provinces with the most fires, with the rate of oil palm expansion, according to plantation statistics,” Naufal said.
Madani also found that 31.35 percent of all forest and ground fires in 2019 took place in areas that were included in the moratorium on new oil palm oil plantation license while 64,41 percent of fires in areas covered by the moratorium took place in peat land.
“There is a lot of peat areas within concession areas, but the Peat Restauration Agency (BRG) does not have the authority over those areas. What needs to be assured is that the BRG must have the authority to restore peat anywhere,” said Herlianto. Naufal said that there were 1,7 million hectares of peat land in concession areas.
From the data study, Madani also managed to identify the five provinces that were predicted to have the most forest and ground fires in 2020. “The five provinces predicted to be prone to have the most fires are Central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, Papua, East Kalimantan and South Sumatra.
Herlianto deplored the fact that the ongoing Covid-10 pandemic made everyone focused on dealing with this health crisis and therefore “there are no regions that have prepared themselves to face the forest and ground fires,” this year. He also added that the main responsibility in preventing and overcoming the forest and ground fires laid on the administration in the regions, both provincial and district levels.
He said that administrations in the region could already do things to prevent forest and ground fires, for example by wetting peat soil in their territory through good water management so that they do not catch fire easily. The administration in the regions could also help improving the economy of local people in fire-prone areas, including by promoting the cultivation of crops suitable to grow on peat land.