A car passes by fire danger indicator at Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper headquarter in Pelalawan District in Riau on Tuesday, July 28,2015. (GA Photo/Dion Bisara)

APRIL Enlists Villages to Fight Forest Fires

JULY 28, 2015

[Updated at 11:12 pm on Tuesday, July 28, 2015]

Pelalawan, Riau. After years of spending millions of dollars on equipment and personnel to combat forest fires with little result, pulp and paper giant Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings sees that there's no substitute for good neighbors.

The company, through its operation arm Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), expanded a community development program on Tuesday which rewards fire-prone villages around its plantation for keeping the area fire-free during dry season.

Under the program, dubbed Fire-Free Village Program, RAPP grants Rp 100 million ($7,437) worth of development for villages which prevent fire. The pilot program in 2014 involved four high risks villages. It managed to keep one village fire-free and cut total fires in the villages down by half, reducing risks of the flame propagating into RAPP's concession area.

This year the company has expanded the program to include nine villages along with with a community awareness campaign of the fire's impact and the hiring of a local leader to lead a local crew and manage fire suppression during the dry season.

The company will also offer land clearing for farmers using heavy machinery, free of charge.

“Our focus now is prevention,” Anderson Tanoto, a director at Royal Golden Eagle, April's parent company, told GlobeAsia on Tuesday.

The company estimated it had lost $140 million worth of forestry assets to fire damage since 2009, with fire mostly coming from outside plantation borders, where burning remains a method to improve efficacy and fertility of peat land for subsistence farmers.

Since then, RAPP has invested $6 million in fire fighting equipment and spends $3 to $4 million a year to maintain fire fighting operations.

“We spent $15,000 to operate helicopter for six hours fighting the fire. That money would be better spent on the community to prevent fires,” Anderson said.

For villagers, the land clearing program throws a lifeline. The farmers refrained from burning their field after police tightened enforcement in the aftermath of the 2013 fire and haze.

But, that also means they need more time to clear thick bushes by hand, limiting planting area as well as their income.

“[The machinery] is just what we've been asking for years but did not get from [the central and regional] government,” said M Yunus, chief of Sering village, which borders the RAPP plantation in Pelalawan District in Riau.

“We fight against the fire, but we still also need to fill our stomach,” he said. Yunus hopes that the government will provide heavy machinery to reside in the village all year long.

RAPP enlisted help from two local NGOs, Rumah Pohon and Blue Green, to support the fire prevention socialization program, as well as support from local government, police, military and Riau's Disaster Mitigation Agency.

“This private-initiated program help our cause to make Riau's free of forest fire and haze,” said Arsyadjuliandi Rachman, Riau's interim governor on Tuesday. The provincial government would ask other companies to replicate RAPP program, Arsyadjuliandi said, in order to strengthen the province's forest fire prevention initiative.

Riau province and companies like RAPP are used to be in close scrutiny this time of year year, as dry season coming and increasing risks of peat land to catch fire naturally or intentionally. In 2013, the forest fire was so severe it covered Singapore with thick haze and disrupted domestic and international flights.

“This year has been better so far, you see. There have been no cancellation in flights, and sea-borne ships navigate normally so far,” Arsyadjulinadi said.

The reporter's visit to Pelalawan was hosted by APRIL.