Preventing and fighting peatland fires in Indonesia requires an array of coordinated actions horizontally across the peatlands where most of the GHG emissions occur among community, private sector, and local community stakeholders and vertically from national through Provincial and District down to the village levels. In contrast to previous catastrophic fire years corresponding with El Niño events over the past 40 years, notably, 1983/4 and 1997/8, government, private sector, and community reactions following the 2015 El Niño are at a positively unprecedented level, ranging from the establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), the first Presidential Directive of 2016, to punitive sanctions for plantation companies that display irresponsible attitudes towards fire, not least the significant community-level awareness of the need to reduce the risk of fire to their farm assets as well as health. Lying at the heart of reducing fires and haze along with the floods that follow in the peatlands is prevention through the restoration of peatland hydrology – in many places disrupted by the ill-advised construction of drainage canals, nowhere more harmful to local economies and global GHG emissions than the infamous and failed one million hectare ex-mega rice project (ex-PLG) area in Central Kalimantan.
USAID LESTARI is supporting Indonesia to meet the single greatest challenge of reducing peatland fires and haze in Indonesia – keeping the peat wet during dry seasons. In that part of the ex-mega rice project area (Block C in Pulang Pisau District) where emissions were highest in 2015, LESTARI’s rapid hydrological and socio-economic survey is informing local government about how and where to dam excessively-wide and long canals so as to raise water levels and keep the peat wet during the fire-prone dry season. This is not only a technical challenge, but to succeed must also allow communities to maintain legitimate access to the peatlands for their farming and fishing activities while establishing conservation areas in the deep peat areas that have social legitimacy as sources of water resources for plantation and village livelihoods alike. The approach supports the BRG to create a national system of over 400 management units based upon peatland hydrology, in the case of Block C, Kesatuan Hidrologi Gambut #14 between the Kahayan and Sebangau rivers.
Failure to restore peatland hydrology will invite an ever-growing vicious cycle of fire damage destroying farm and agroforestry assets directly, e.g., rubber, oil palm and paper bark trees (galam or Melaleuca spp), especially when fire is able to penetrate into the flammable dry peat soils, and indirectly through subsequent flooding during the rainy reason made worse by the falling levels caused by the burning of the peat soil. The present system of wide and long ex-PLG canals not only dry out the peat but tend to be where fires start, whether accidentally or on purpose for land clearing.
At the request of the BRG, a rapid hydrological survey of the entire 440,000 hectares of Block C / KHG #14, was initiated in April 2016 to determine where canal blocking should take place to retain water in the peatlands during the dry season.
Figure 1: Initial results of the peatland hydrology assessment in Central Kalimantan
Figure 1 shows on the left the first results of the survey with an inset of the peatland profile and where dams should be placed; in the plan view, red blocks indicate where the dams should be built made up largely of compacted peat and bags of stones to allow for resilience in the soft soil and ease of maintenance. An indication of the restoration outcome of damming the canals is seen in the picture on the right shows where an unused canal has regenerated woodland that remained moist during 2015 while fire raged on either side, red lines indicate the fire scars. Figure 2 resembles Figure 1 with more familiar hotspots than fire scar analysis.
Figure 2: Hotspots in LESTARI’s Katingan-Kahayan landscape
The District Government of Pulang Pisau is waiting on the results of the survey and its companion analysis about existing canal use before mobilizing Rupiahs 12 million for canal blocking in 2016. Local communities will be involved in the construction and maintenance of the canals. The survey will support BRG efforts to establish management of KHG 14 down to the village level, specifically the nurturing of Desa Perduli Gambut / Peat-concerned villages.