The focus of government efforts in preventing and handling forest and ground fires in Indonesia this year is on prevention, especially in preventing fires in peat by restoring their condition so that they are not prone to catch fire, experts said.
“Prevention is the best step to take,” Doni Monardo, Head of the National Agency for Disaster Mitigation (BNPB) told a Katadata Virtual Forum entitled “The Threat of Forest and Ground Fires and Covid-19 in Times of Pandemic” on Thursday (13/8.)
Monardo said that returning the nature of peat, which is wet, watery and marshy would be encouraged for the medium and long term so as to be able to reduce their potential in catching fire.
“The maximum effort is to make sure that the peat remains wet, watery and marshy because this is the true nature of peat,” Monardo said, adding that if peat dried up, it would act like young coal that can easily catch fire since it is composed of vegetal material that have been buried for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Monardo said that damage peat soil once it caught fire, it would be difficult to extinguish the fire. He mentioned the example of fires in a peat area that was finally extinguished with water bombing by scores of helicopters but fire spots reappeared on their own a few days later, accompanied by thick smoke.
Echoing Monardo, Muhammad Teguh Surya, Executive Director of Madani Berkelanjutan Foundation, an organization which jointly held the virtual forum together with Katadata, also stressed that the efforts to deal with forest and ground fires should now not focus on mitigation and fire-fighting but rather on prevention with a stress on the restoration of damaged peat land and halting the destruction of forests.
“Our point is, that if we want to halt the disaster of forest and ground fires, then the key is that we should return the ecological function of forests and peatland,” Surya said at the same forum.
He said that an analysis on fires data of the last few years showed that around 75 percent of the burnt areas were in damaged forest and peat areas.
The analysis which was conducted by Madani Berkelanjutan also showed that the areas gutted in the past five years were areas with extensive peatland and were priority areas for peat restoration.
“That is why, efforts to restore peat become important,” Surya said, adding that based on the fire trace from 2015 to 2019, the area that are projected to be most prone to fires this year were peatland and also industrial estate and oil palm plantations.
Surya said that in 2016-2018, the government showed a serious effort to begin restoring damaged peatland. However, he also added that although it looked good on paper as a priority, the actual implementation in the field was far from smooth.
He said that 44.1 percent from the 1.6 million hectares of forest and ground hit by fires in 2019 were in peat ecosystems. Monardo in his presentation said that last year 494,450 hectares of the total burned forests and ground in 2019 were peatland with Central Kalimantan province registering the biggest burnt peat area, followed by South Sumatra province.
Bambang Hero Saharjo, a fire forensic expert from the Forestry Faculty of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) said in a separate talk show later on Thursday (13/8) that preventing fires to break out in peat was also important to reduce carbon emission.
Dried up peat will burn easily and also release a large number of carbon gas into the air that it had previously stored in it as carbon.
Saharjo said that in 2019 the total peat area that caught fire across Indonesia reached 494.450 hectares, or more than triple the 125.340 hectares of peat land hit by fire in 2018. From the peat land that burned in 2019, 482,674 hectares were peat restoration target areas.
The Madani Berkelanjutan analysis also showed that there were four provinces which had a high potential of having the highest amount of forest and ground fires in 2020 — Riau, Riau Islands, East Kalimantan and North Sumatera.
Monardo said that based on the forecast of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, forest and ground fires in Indonesia this year were likely to be much less than last year, citing weather conditions such as a dry season that was much wetter than in 2019.
He said that by June 30 this year, fires had gutted 38,772 hectares of forest and ground in the country.
Another strategy that needed to be implemented to prevent forest and ground fires is to change behavior so that people become aware and also intervene against those who still burn to clear or open land.
The forum also heard Sutarmidji, the Governor of West Kalimantan, one of the provinces heavily hit by the annual forest and ground fires, as explaining that his administration was now firmly enforcing the law against those companies found or suspected of having used fire to clear or clean land in the province or which had fires develop within their concessions.
Public participation was also encouraged in safeguarding as well as exploitation of peatland as part of efforts to prevent fires there.
“In reality, if one wants to involve the public in safeguarding and make use of peat land, we have to start with the concept of developing villages,” Sutarmidji said, stressing the need for peat land to be safeguarded. “I agree with Doni Monardo that peat land should be planted with various plants of economic value such as bananas and aloe vera.