The Palm Scribe

Preventing fires in forest and palm oil lands

Ground and forest fires decreases drastically in 2017 compared to the previous year. How was this achieved?

forest fire
ILLUSTRATION. Forest fire, the wildfire burning tree in red and orange color at night.

Ground and forest fires are very much a reality in Indonesia, taking place every year and imposing very significant impacts on the population, especially communities in and around the location of the fires.

These fires are usually caused by two main factors, human and nature. Most of the ground and forest fires broke out because of fires from land clearing activities that use fire and later turned uncontrollable.

The natural factor that often can lead to ground and forest fire is the extreme dryness of the dry season where rain levels are low or almost inexistent for extended periods. However, ground and forest fires are not only limited to dry lands. They can also happen in wetland or peatland that have already been planted with palm oil.

The ground and forest fires that took place between June and October 2015 are said to have been the worst in the recent history of the country, causing at least 24 deaths and leaving more than 600,000 people suffering from various respiratory tract ailments. A total of some 60 million people were exposed to the smoke from the fires and 2.61 million hectares of ground and forest were gutted.

From these gutted lands, 869,754 hectares, or about a third, or 33 percent, concerned peatland. The rest, 1,741,657 hectares were mineral lands.

“Economist calculate the impact from the number of cancelled flights, the impact from offices and business that were forced to close, the impact of disruption to the economy and this have reached a figure that is not small, at around Rp 220 trillion. This is a really huge figure,” President Joko Widodo said at the Negara Palace early this year.

Since then, the central government has launched several programs to prevent and mitigate forest and ground fires, mobilizing the involvement of all stakeholders such as the regional administrations, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, the Indonesian Armed Forces, the National Police, companies and also local communities.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry, for example, formed Fire Aware Communities ( Masyarakat Peduli Api/MPA). These MPA  were formed in target villages, those bordering with forest areas and fire-prone villages across the country.

The ministry trained and provided the technical knowhow to prevent fires. These trainings and technical knowhow included the provision of a general outlook on ground and forest fire control, basic techniques of prevention, basic land clearing practices without using fire, and basic fire fighting techniques, On-the-field practices were also provided.  The environment and forestry ministry also provided simple equipments for early fire fighting.

Corporations in the wood and palm oil industries were also called on to play an active role in the prevention of the ground and forest fires. They are no longer demanded to only supervise their respective conservation areas but are also put under the obligation to monitor the villages around them.

Under this system, companies are required to classified the villages that are under their responsibility into three rings. The first ring covers villages that are directly neighbouring with concessions, the second ring covers villages within a three-kilometer ring around the borders of the concessions, while the third ring involves villages that are more than three kilometers away from the borders of the concessions.

The concession holder is responsible for implementing a program of guidance that includes funding for villages within the first two rings. For villages in the third ring, the company acts as a cluster leader responsible for coordinating guidance for them.

Under this system, the focus is shifted from fire control to fire prevention, the latter to include early detection, early fire fighting and guidance for the area around the concession.

PT KAL fire fighter
PT KAL first established a fire fighting unit on October 10, 2015.  (Photo: Wicaksono/The Palm Scribe)

One of the companies that implement this system of responsibility in ground and forest fire prevention is PT Kayung Agro Lestari (PT KAL), a subsidiary of  PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk. Operating in the Ketapang district of  West Kalimantan, PT KAL first established a fire fighting unit on October 10, 2015. The team was composed of  32 personnel who have undergone trainings and obtained certification from  Manggala Agni, the forest fire control brigade of the forestry ministry, and was provided with one fire fighting vehicle and ten high-pressure pumps.

To monitor areas and prevent fires, 15-meter high watchtowers were built for every 500 hectares of land. PT KAL has now 29 of such watchtowers. The company has also build water reservoirs measuring 20 meter by 20 meters.

To monitor areas and prevent fires, 15-meter high watchtowers were built for every 500 hectares of land. PT KAL has now 29 of such watchtowers. (Photo: Wicaksono/The Palm Scribe)

The management of PT KAL deems that the threat of ground and forest fires is real and willing or not, has to be faced by palm oil plantation every year, especially in the dry season. ANJ has also opted to focus on prevention rather than fire fighting.

Preventing ground and forest fires are believed to be the most effective, and also most economic way to prevent losses and damage, without having to resort to expensive equipments. The management believes that prevention is the most important activities in controlling ground and forest fires and thus has to be conducted continuously.

“We are providing guidance for the Fire Aware Farmers Group (Kelompok Tani Peduli Api /KTPA) in villages around the palm oil plantation, If a fire breaks, KTPA takes part in the response,” said Syamsul Bahri Pello, a staff of the fire fighting unit of PT KAL.

The cooperation between all stakeholders has clearly yielded results. The total surface affected by ground and forest fires in 2017 drastically declined compared to the previous years. This decline, a press release from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, could be seen from the data from satellite imaging.

Data from the  LANDSAT 8 and HS Terra Aqua satellites showed that up until October 5, 2017, the surface affected by ground and forest fires across Indonesia totalled 124,743 hectares. This compares to about 483,363 hectares in 2016 and 2,611,411 hectares in 2015.

Data from the  NOAA satellite showed that the number of hotspost across the country had declined to 2,339 spots, or 32.90 percent down from the number of hotspots in the previous year.

Satellite imaging from NASA’s  TERRA-AQUA satellite put the number of hotspots this year at 1,798  or 49.15 percent down compared to the same period last year.

“The key to the success in reducing the number of forest fires lays in good planning with all stakeholders and a satellite-based early detection system, “ said Djati Witjaksono Hadi, the spokesman of the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

Hadi said that in the future, the ministry will continue to foster closer cooperation with Manggala Agni teams in all regions and also increase both their capacity and capability. “‘We have also sought an additional budget from the House of Representatives to allow a better ground and forest fire handling,” he said.

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