The Forest Scribe

Forest Fire Management Must Focus on Prevention: Conservationist

forest fire
Photo: Krewlex

The government’s forest and ground fire management system was heavy on fire-fighting efforts and should actually be more focused on prevention so that the devastating annual fires that have hit Indonesia in the past decades could become a thing of the past, a conservationist said Thursday (23/7).

“The essence is that as long as its orientation is on fire-fighting, the fires will continue to take place,” Mubariq Ahmad, Executive Director of Conservation Strategy Fund Indonesia.

Speaking at an online discussion initiated by the Madani Berkelanjutan foundation titled “Economic Development Without Destroying the Environment,” Mubariq said that at present, 80 percent of the budget allotted to deal with the forest and ground fires was for fire-fighting while prevention and other purposes only got covered by the remaining 20 percent.

Compounding it further was that the government’s budget mechanism partly supported the need for the fires because they were needed so that the fund could be disbursed and spent.

Data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) showed that in just the first nine months of last year fire razzed 857,756 hectares of forest and ground. Forest Watch Indonesia went even further estimating the annual forest and ground loss to fires at around 1.4 million hectares.

Mubariq said that a focus on fire-fighting meant that there needed to be fires so that the allotted budget could be used. The budget mechanism also based performance to the percentage of the budget that could be absorbed. 

A system where higher the absorption rate, the better the performance, was one of the factors leading to a perverse incentive that pushed for more fires every year in the country.

“This is disastrous for units that deals with disasters. What does that mean? If there is no disaster, then the fund would not be used, and therefore your performance is bad,” Mubariq said, adding that the fires thus became a necessity for these work units to achieve a good performance.

A low rate of budget absorption will lead to a cut in budget in the next budget year. “So, we are getting trapped in our own system.”

“Our fire management system must be changed. That is about an integrated forest management and there is a science to it. In this science, the focus of efforts should match the focus of the budget,” he said, adding that the budget allocation should be reversed, with 80 percent for prevention and 20 percent for fire-fighting.

Emil Salim, a former finance minister and later environment minister who remains active in the field of environment, agreed with Mubariq’s views.

“I see that our financial system is not pro-environment,” Salim said, adding a call for the government to consider this kind of input and revise its policies.

Joko Tri Haryanto, a researcher with the Finance Ministry’s Fiscal Policy Agency, concurred that what was needed concerning the budgeting to deal with the forest and ground fires was a change in management system covering all areas such as finance, legal, participation and others.

But Haryanto also pointed out that regions with a high incidence of forest and ground fires, turned out to have low absorption of their budget to deal with the fires. Some regions, he added, did not absorb even 10 percent of their available fund.

“That means that the problem does not lay with the money, but in its management,” Haryanto said.

Commenting on shrinking budget allocations to deal with the fires as a result of low budget absorption in the previous years, Haryanto said that there were ways to offset it. He said that there were various other funds, including fund transfer from the central government to the regions and for reforestation, that could also be used to deal with the fires.

He also said that in facing the forest and ground fires, efforts should not be sectoral in nature. All funds and efforts should not be just dumped on the shoulder of a single government institutions, such as the environment and forestry ministry for example, but should be born together by all.

“And how do we do this? We should put this as a common issue, we include this as a Key Performance Index for regional leaders, whether governor or district heads. When this is made into a key performance index, it would cascade downward,” he said.

He said that in the last few years, his institution was continuously trying to improve the management of fire prevention and fire-fighting. “How to change the paradigm so that sectoral issued do not get managed in a sectoral way,” and so that funding and efforts would become a issue for all and become therefore more optimized.

Mubariq said that no less important in dealing with forest and ground fires was that “the government should clearly position its partiality. Without being partial to the local communities and forest communities, it would not be doable. This is the first step.”

The government, he said, should also institutionalize forest and ground fires prevention units as “dedicated units with dedicated sufficient budget’ that had a totally different mindset than fire-fighting units.

The government should also build a compliance audit mechanism so that it can enforce regulations, including on company’s readiness to prevent fires, and also should make coordination between government units as part of official’s Key Performance Index.

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