Indonesia must restore nearly 2.7 million hectares of peatland, two thirds of which are concessions held by plantation companies, which have been destroyed by fire in the last four years, but the way it is going about it, according to an expert, may literally backfire.
According to the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), which has been tasked with carrying out restoration projects in peatland areas across the country since 2015, seven provinces are particularly critical for restoration: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Papua.
Indonesia’s total peatland covers approximately 22.5 million ha, second in the world after Brazil with 31.5 million ha, according to Global Wetlands data. Aside from preventing drought, peatland also promotes biodiversity.
Failure to restore the burned peatland would pose threats to humans and the environment.
To rehydrate the peatland, BRG has built more than 3,300 canal blocks, installed more than 4,800 well-connected hoses and planted 40 detectors.
However, Gadjah Mada University (UGM) peatland expert Azwar Maas warned that building canals in peatland areas could result in excessive drainage of freshwater.
“During the dry season, they could deplete the supply of freshwater, which would make the surface of peatland dry and prone to forest fires,” Azwar said at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) building in East Jakarta last week.
Meanwhile, a forestry professor at the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), Bambang Hero Saharjo, said the most important thing to do to prevent fires and restore the peatland areas was to ensure plantation companies comply with the governmentsanctioned peatland restoration projects and follow the available standardized procedures.
“If the concession areas have been included in prioritized areas for restoration, they [the companies] should have restored them by the fourth year [since the restoration project began],” said Bambang.
According to the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s law enforcement division, the office has sent as many as 210 warning letters to companies registered as peatland concession holders about alleged negligence that led to forest fires.
In addition, 28 companies were forced to discontinue their business operations after their peatlands were sealed off by the ministry.
Furthermore, three companies and one individual are currently being investigated for negligence that falls under a category that can be prosecuted for acts of environmental crime.
The three corporations’ initials were PT SKM, PT ABP and PT AER and are all located in West Kalimantan.
“The ministry’s law enforcement team acts as second line of initiators of disciplinary measures taken against concession holders that do not take care of their peatland. The first line of defense is the provincial administrations,” said the ministry’s law enforcement directorate general Rasio Ridho Sani at the ministry building in Jakarta on Thursday.
“The [Environment and] Forestry Ministry is always coordinating and assisting the regional administrations in patrolling and providing technology to prevent more forest fires from occurring in the future,” he added.
Rasio said the patrol teams consist of members of the Indonesian Military, National Police and the Regional Disaster Mitigation Agencies (BPBD). As of August this year, 9,072 patrol team personnel were spread across Sumatra and Borneo, the two islands where forest fires are most rampant.
In addition, the ministry has also deployed airplanes to spray large volumes of water over forest fires and dry peatland. As of August this year, 64 aircraft were operational and sprayed 191 million liters of water across eight provinces.
BRG chairman Nazir Foead said the enduring factors that hindered progress in restoration projects were that many of the targeted areas were inaccessible and still tangled in conflicts of interest.
An estimated 30 percent of burned peatland is in concession areas and conflicts over land ownership between corporations and local people have not been settled.
“It is a complex problem as it involves many stakeholders. It could take years to settle,” Nazir told The Jakarta Post by phone recently.
“Also, there are irresponsible individuals apparently burning the land on purpose. However, it’s difficult to identify whether they represent companies or act on their own,” he said.
According to Law No. 41/1999 on forestry, a deliberate act of forest burning could lead to a 15year prison sentence and a Rp 5 billion (US$351,067) fine, while negligence that leads to a forest fire could result in a 5-year prison sentence and a Rp 1 billion fine.
Nazir also blamed the dry season for contributing to this year’s fires.
“Land without irrigation could dry in 10 days, while irrigated land dries in one month.”
As of June, an estimated 929,000 ha of peatland had been restored.