The Forest Scribe

Village Facilitator, an Important Cog in Slash and Burn Eradication

ground and forest fire

Toni Saputra may just be a small-scale catfish farmer in a village in Riau province, but he is at the forefront of efforts to eradicate slash and burn practices that have so far been mostly blamed for the massive forest and ground fires which have annually plagued Indonesia in the dry season.

As a number of regions in Indonesia are entering the dry season including in Riau which has been one of the provinces worst hit by the annual fires, it has become important for all sides, especially those interacting daily with farmers, to join efforts to halt the practice of clearing land by burning as the new planting season approaches.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency BMKG in April said that this year, the dry season in Riau, as well as in a number of other regions such as South Sumatra, Jambi and in Central, East and North Kalimantan, is expected to take place in June-July. The agency also predicted that Indonesia would experience a neutral El Nino weather phenomenon which would lead to dryer conditions than normal. 

Saputra, a 26-year-old native of Perawang Barat village who then studied agriculture at university and has a small catfish farm, now also works as a facilitator of the Integrated Forestry & Farming System (IFFS) program which assists the eradication of poverty in rural areas by providing opportunities and support for various people’s small businesses in villages.

As his work requires him to assist farmers and interact with them on a daily basis, Saputra is also at the frontline of efforts to eradicate the practice of clearing land by fire often used by farmers in Perawang Barat, a village of some 23,000 souls in the sub-district of Tualang in Riau’s district of Siak, and a number of other villages in the same sub-district.

Although many farmers in Perawang Barat had long heard about the dangers and perils of clearing land by burning, it took the confluence of a number of factors and the participations of officials at all levels down, companies and their village facilitators, as well as local social figures and leaders, to sink the awareness that the practice must go.

For Saputra, one of the important factors that helped raise awareness about the nefarious impacts of clearing land by burning, was the massive forests and ground fires that hit some parts of the country, including Riau in 2015. The months of fires sent smoke and haze that blanketed most of Sumatra and even neighboring countries, causing extensive health and traffic hazards and making it difficult for residents to conduct activities in the open.

Also read: Covid-19 Pandemic May Worsen This Year’s Forest and Ground Fires

“The impact of the smoke in 2015 was extraordinary, so it was easier for us to educate the people,” said Saputra.  

Data from the National Agency for Disaster Mitigation (BNPB) showed that in 2015, a total of 2.61 million hectares of forests and ground were gutted by fires. The World Bank said that the fires led to economic losses estimated to have reached Rp 221 trillion or around $16 billion. The fires also caused more than 600,000 people to suffer from acute respiratory tract infections while more than 60 million people were exposed to the toxic smoke.

“Let alone working in the field, just breathing was difficult and painful and we could not see the sun. When there is no sun, our horticultural crops suffer,” said Listya Lasmono, a farmer in Perawang Barat, reminiscing about the great 2015 fires. Perawang Barat which lays not far from a timber estate managed by PT Arara Abadi, mostly rely on horticulture although there were also farmers planting oil palms.

Lasmono said horticultural crops needed around nine hours of exposure to the sun, but when the thick smoke haze hid the sun, the crops suffered and wilted, leading to poor or even failed harvests.

He said that he had already stopped using fire to clear up his land and added that most members of a farmers group he belonged to, had also stopped clearing land by burning. 

“It has now been more than two years that we are no longer clearing land by burning,” he said, adding that Saputra, who was also a member of the same farmer group but later became a facilitator for the IFFS program, was the one, who with the support of the village head, had persistently worked to slowly persuaded them to drop their practice of clearing land by burning. 

Saputra works for the program that aims at providing alternative livelihoods that would thus encourage farmers to drop the practices of burning land. The program is part of the efforts of Asia Pulp and Paper Group to empower local communities.

Farmer harvesting his crop. Photo: Dhung Thuy from Pixabay

He said that it was far from easy to persuade farmers that there were other ways to clear land without having to use fire, and to convince them that in the long term, the burning would exact a toll, among the population, the planted crops and the environment in general.

Azwar Maas, a professor of Agriculture at the Gadjah Mada University said that farmers are still used to burn waste from land clearing, although in much smaller and controllable scale, they would put the waste in small piles and set them alight to produce charcoal and ash, the later to fertilize the land. 

“The thing is that when burned, they stood to lose elements like nitrogen, and sometimes sulfur. The best way would be to turn them into composts,” Maas said., adding that by composting the waste, these two important nutrients would be able to return to the soil. He added that there were now starters, solutions to accelerate the decomposition of organic matters and it would only take between 25 days and about one and half month to make compost out of the cut down bushes, depending on whether they are damaged or cut into small pieces or not.

He said that companies could help by providing lime, or dolomite that would reinforce the nutrients from the composted shrubs.

Saputra said that the company he was working with, did exactly that.

“What we did was to provide them with dolomite, that only need to be applied once, right after the land had been cleared. The results are even better than when the land is burned,” Saputra said adding after the application of the dolomite, farmers are then assisted with the provision of other types of fertilizers, including organic ones.

“Regarding the burning, thank God, in Perawang Barat at present, there is no more burning,” Saputra said.

Saputra admitted that he was lucky in that he was already part of the farmer organization in Perawang Barat before taking on his current job, so he already knew many of the local farmers as well as village officials and village elders.

He said he used meetings of the organizations, usually held at the village hall, and personal visits to farmers, to increase their awareness about the disadvantages and dangers of forest and ground fires, raise their capacity in preventing fires, including by clearing land without burning and making sure that this was conducted in the most effective way possible.

Because he had to deal with farmers from nine villages, he just focused on two to three villages only in a week.

“This is time consuming,” he said explaining that one could not immediately go into the core of the matter with farmers but had to first gain their trust and interest before beginning to tell them about the need to not use fire when clearing land. He usually also picked a good time to talk to them, for example when they are resting in their hut, not when they are busy working.

Industrial Forest. Photo: Cun Cun from Wikimedia

“Sometimes we go with some from the village administration, the head of the institution (the farmer organization.) So, together we educate the farmers,” Saputra said.

“We also take everyone on board,” he said of his efforts to wean farmers away from the slash and burn practice. He said that he approached everyone, from the village head, local religious and customary leaders, the local police and military and other institutions such as the provincial disaster mitigation agency.

He said that an MoU was signed between the company, and the village in 2017 although work only began early in 2018. At the start, the IFFS program only covered members of the village’s farmer organization who only numbered slightly over 20. The members received benefits in various forms, including technical assistance, fertilizer assistance, seeds and marketing assistance.

Under the IFFS program the village was provided with funds for the agriculture sector, small and medium scale enterprises, creative businesses or home industry totaling Rp250,000,000. This fund is then split into a number of packages which then are lent to the beneficiaries of the program.

“Me and my friends have really been helped by this IFFS program,” said Lasmono, adding that with the fund for his chili plantation, he could save money for the education of his two children. His eldest child, he said, was now a student in agriculture at the university in Solo, Central Java.

Lasmono said under the program “the company has provided us with funds which has not been just a little. We manage this fund and lend it to members who needs it.”

For those farmers outside of the institution, Saputra said that he has to educate them with a different approach because they do not receive any of the direct benefit from the company. “We have to use a more personal approach, a more family-like approach with them,” he said. 

He said that with those farmers, they were still initially allowed to burn when clearing land, but in small, controlled fires. “We cannot just get them to immediately cease the use of burning.”

Gadjah Mada’s Maas said that the private sectors, especially plantations and timber estates, have an interest to help local people to stop burning their land so that fires do not spread to the plantations.

The local village chief, Faisal, had also been very helpful by telling villagers to not burn their land when clearing them and warning them that law enforcers were now quick to act against those continuing to use fire.

Faisal said that he was approached by the company in 2016 over efforts to educate farmers of the need to leave behind slash and burn practices. 

He said that educating farmers was done “through promotion, calls made during meetings, signboards, banners and billboards.”

“In the beginning, it was difficult for people to understand because for them clearing land by burning was cheap,” Faisal said. But continuously extolling the dangers of using fires to clear land while at the same time reminding farmers that legal sanctions awaited those who continued to burn their land.

“It is true that it took a long time and much patience was needed,” he said.

Echoing Saputra, Faisal said that in educating farmers about the dangers of slash and burn, they did not work alone but also enlisted the cooperation of many sides. He said that the administration at district and provincial levels all cooperated and provided support. At the village level village elders, religious leaders and farmer organizations were also enlisted to help campaigning against slash and burn.

The IFFS program is focused on villagers, and aims at raising their knowledge on how to avoid the practice of clearing land by burning, which has been often said to be the main cause behind the forest and ground fires. It also aims at raising their resilience through assuring them a better livelihood, including through alternative crop cultivations and processing.

Under the program, Faisal said, the company provided assistance not only to farmers but to villagers too. The assistance included providing various needs such as seeds and fertilizers, technical knowhow and also small capital to start businesses.

Medi Herlianto, senior lecturer at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said that for his agency, fire prevention meant changing the people’s mindset.

“Prevention is through changing the mindset of the people. The concept that is prioritized is enhancing welfare, developing the knowledge, understanding and building capacity so that people no longer burn,” he said during a recent online discussion on forest and ground fires.,

Herlianto added that efforts were also made to promote the cultivation and processing of crops with economic value most suitable for the area so as to provide an added value and additional source of livelihood.

Concerning the role of the private sector in preventing forest and ground fires, Herlianto said that the government already included it in the government’s Grand Design for Prevention of Forest, Plantation and ground fires 2017-2019 

Also read: Peat Still Warrants Attention in This Year’s Forest and Ground Fires: Madani

“One of the aims of the Grand design is to increase the participation of the private sector and the public in the prevention of fires in a planned and systematic manner,” he said.

Facilitators are crucial in this, as they are the ones through whom technical assistance is provided to the farmers so that they could apply land clearing without fire in line with the standards set by the government.

Efforts by IFFS and its facilitators in eradicating the practice of slash and burn were clearly in line with the government’s Grand Design and some government moves backed this assumption.

In March, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya sent letters to heads of regional administrations that among others asked them to coordinate with various sides to activate a role of the private sector in preventing forest and ground fires, including by educating the public to not clear land by burning.

Saputra said that one challenge of getting farmers to drop their old slash and burn practice was that when farmers were asked to not burn their land, they also needed to be given concrete alternative solutions. 

“The challenge is in providing them with the machinery that could speed up the land clearing,” he said adding that the company could some time oblige.

Lasmono said that the company did indeed help with machinery to speed up the work but farmers were usually too impatient and reluctant to wait for the machinery to be assigned to them.

“Cleaning up one hectare could need two to three weeks if we work alone with just cutting tools,” Lasmono said, adding that with the help of machines, one hectares can easily be cleared in one day.

Saputra said that what he could do was just to provide knowledge about how to clear land without using fire while the company could provide assistance such as seeds and fertilizers. 

For farmers taking part in the IFFS program and did not use fire to clear their land, the incentive could include including the provision of equipment for clearing land without burning and tools for production or processing, technical guidance to raise crop productivity, help in marketing products and also assistance to allow a diversification of the people’s economy.

“The bad side of my job is when I come into disagreement with some of the farmers. That happens as there are many kinds of farmers. The good side is I get to know a lot of people and I can also learn a lot myself from farmers,” Saputra said.

“I am working Sir, while at the same time I want to make my birthplace progress,” he concluded.

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