Haze choked not just Indonesia but also Southeast Asia in 2015. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)
Taming the Flame: Local Advocates Campaign for Fire-Free Village
BY : MUHAMAD AL AZHARI
FEBRUARY 24, 2017
Langgam, Pelalawan. "Sometimes bad things have to happen before good things can," as the old saying goes. It is also an apt way to describe the experience of two crew leaders of the Fire-Free Village Program, or FFVP, who have been campaigning against land-burning in Langgam, a village in Pelalawan, Riau, in concert with the village head and local government institutions.
Ihsan Kusnaidi, 31, told the Jakarta Globe that many members of his family, including his son, suffered from severe respiratory illnesses caused by the toxic haze that blanketed his village in 2015.
"My eldest son had to be admitted to the hospital because he couldn't breathe. I remember during the huge fire we were trapped as there was only one road out of the village to Pangkalan Kerinci, it was a struggle just to breathe," said Ihsan, who still lives in Langgam.
"I join the Fire-Free Village Program because I care [about the environment]," he added.
That year, the choking haze did not just affect Riau but also many other parts of Southeast Asia. The haze was caused by land and forest fires, often deliberately lit by locals who believe it is the cheapest way to clear land for farming.
Ihsan, a father of two, recalled no-one else had wanted to apply to become a crew leader with the FFVP when it first came to his village last year.
"Some people were saying there's no money in it," said the man who used to earn Rp 1.4 million ($105) a month as a contract teacher at an elementary school — barely enough to pay the bills.
His decision last year to become an FFVP crew leader for his village turned out to be a blessing for his family as he now earns more than double his previous monthly salary.
Started as a pilot program in 2014 by global pulp and paper industry leader Asia Pacific Resources International — known as APRIL, the program was officially launched in 2016 with nine villages participating.
Since the results were promising, the FFVP expanded to 20 villages last year and will at least keep that number this year.
Ihsan said educating the public about the importance of keeping the village fire-free has not been an easy job. "Once a fisherman threatened me with a cleaver when I told him to be careful with his camp fire," he said.
Working 7 days a week for the FFVP is not too exhausting for Ihsan, as the work leaves enough free time for him to see his family and rest.
"I leave home at 9 a.m. and go on patrol until 11 a.m. Then I have a break until around 3 p.m. when I start patrolling again until the evening," Ihsan, who patrols on foot and sometimes on a motorcycle, said.
APRIL entrusts village crew leaders with campaigning for a no-burning policy in their communities. They will also have to manage efforts to prevent forest and land fires.
Each crew leader goes on a three-month intensive training at APRIL's main facility in Pangkalan Kerinci, where they learn about the hazards of slash-and-burn practices and the dangers haze poses to human health. They are also trained in basic fire-extinguishing techniques and quick coordination with the relevant authorities.
The FFVP also has other goals, including the "no burn village reward," which rewards villages that can keep fires out of their area. The maximum reward is Rp 100 million to be spent on facility development.
Each village is reviewed by an independent committee, who has the authority to dispense a fraction of the total reward to villages that could not quite meet their target.
FFVP also offers sustainable agricultural assistance, with APRIL providing agricultural equipment for local communities to clear up land without burning.
The program has also developed an integrated haze monitoring system that combines data collected from the field with advanced equipment and technology.
Langgam, which covers around 11,700 hectares of land, was one of 20 villages participating in the 2016 FFVP program.
Most local residents earn their living from farming, fishing or working as a staff at one of the plantations or mining companies in the village or surrounding areas.
Traditional farmers burn land since it is the cheapest way to clear it before they can plant crops to earn extra income.
Jonhavazar said Langgam received half of the FFVP reward last year, or Rp 50 million, for managing to contain land fire to less than 2 hectares. According to the village head, the source of the fires is not just land burning by its owners.
"It can also be caused by fishermen making camp fires. Sometimes even when the fire looks like it's been put off, there's still flame burning down under," he said.
Education and daily patrol by crew leaders help to prevent these accidental land fires, said Jonhavazar.
The village head was grateful Langgam managed to get half of the FFPV reward last year, which they will likely spend on new fire-extinguishing gears and renovating the village mosque. "We're looking forward to sign up with the FFVP again this year," he said.
Another FFVP crew leader from Kuala Tolam, Helmi, agreed that it is hard to change people's mindset on land-burning, admitting to the Jakarta Globe that he used to do it himself.
Until one day he was forced to pay damages for burning land belonging to his neighbor. Helmi said he learned his lessons from the incident.
He had to pay nearly Rp 20 million in damages, or face jail. For a poor man like him, coming up with that amount of money was no easy task. In the end, he was forced to sell many of his belongings.
Now as an FFPV crew leader, Helmi has taken it upon himself to warn his friends and neighbors not to make the same mistake.
Last year, Kuala Tolam was also given a partial FFVP reward, which they will also spend on improving public facilities.
Under Indonesia's Environmental Law, land burning can earn the perpetrator three to ten years in jail, or net a fine from Rp 3 billion to Rp 10 billion.
According to Helmi, if farmers were aware of the sanctions, it should be enough to prevent them from practicing slash-and-burn cultivation.
Indonesia's fire and haze crisis in 2015 was described by many in the international community as a major environmental disaster in Southeast Asia.
Large parts of the country's forests were destroyed by fire that year. The health of people living in surrounding areas were adversely impacted, livelihoods and biodiversity destroyed. The World Bank estimated economic losses of $16 billion from the fire and haze.