Jakarta. A robust multi-stakeholder approach holds the key to prevent another widespread forest fire in Indonesia, according to major pulp and paper producer APRIL Group.
The challenging forest fires of 2019 have encouraged APRIL to review their fire prevention initiatives, which including raising community awareness about the threat of fire and haze, and allying with other Indonesian forestry companies through the Fire Forest Alliance (FFA).
Recently, Jakarta Globe had the opportunity to interview the group's sustainability operations manager and FFA's chairman Craig Robin Tribolet.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What exactly was the root cause of last year's blaze?
What we know from our operational data is that there are very few natural sources of fire in Indonesia.
The vast majority of, if not all, fires are deliberately lit. Understanding the underlying reasons why people are lighting up these fires is critical to addressing the problem.
People are using fire for a range of reasons, including to clear vegetation as part of preparing land for cultivation.
But importantly, this is not about blame. It is about understanding the root cause to ensure that the solutions are addressing the real problem. That is supported by an earlier analysis, which shows that over 75 percent of the burnt area in 2019 was idle or abandoned land that had been subject to burning in previous years.
The fires experienced in some countries, including Indonesia, were almost certainly exacerbated by a dry phase Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) – one of the strongest on record – affecting rainfall.
This unusually strong dry, or positive, phase was associated with cooler than normal waters in the eastern Indian Ocean, resulting in significantly drier conditions, higher fire dangers and a delay to the start of the annual wet season across the region.
I believe the common theme in all these situations is that while starting small, if not managed, fires can get out of control. This results in fires that may burn large areas well beyond the original ignition point with a range of flow-on impacts.
Data indicates that forest fires in Indonesia are not restricted only to peatlands, nor are they mainly occurring on plantations or company concessions. Managed landscapes like large-scale concessions, in contrast, are far more likely to be fire-free.
What are the differences between forest fires in Indonesia and Australia?
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, resulting in over 18 million hectares burnt, more than 2,500 homes destroyed and an estimated one billion animals killed.
Indonesia also had significantly lower rainfall levels during its annual July-to-September dry season. Riau received only 47 percent of its long-term average rainfall during this period, resulting in very difficult fire conditions in 2019.
The Indonesian government, which has focused on enforcing fire-related regulations since a catastrophic fire in 2015 in which 2 million hectares were burnt, reported 857,756 hectares of burnt land across Indonesia last year. It also generated a smoke haze that blanketed the wider region despite three relatively fire-free years between 2016 and 2018.
In Australia, a naturally fire-prone environment, a significant percentage of the area burnt is the result of lightning starting fires in inaccessible areas following extended dry periods.
Issues related to development along with an urban or forest interface, fuel management as well as the effects of climate change are all part of an ongoing debate into the causes and impacts of wildfire. What is clear is that in Australia deliberate ignitions have a limited role in fire causation overall.
Indonesia's forests, like tropical forests in the Amazon, appear to have limited natural sources of fire. Despite annual dry seasons, the chances of large-scale devastating fires starting from natural causes are low.
Most fires in these tropical regions are deliberately lit as a cheap and effective means to clear land for agricultural use. A lack of access to appropriate tools, machinery, technology, limited capital and a poor understanding of consequence mean people will use fire because it is the most cost-effective tool available.
What lessons can be learned from last year's forest fire?
There are no easy answers or copy-and-paste solutions to the challenge posed by wildfires. For that reason, understanding the context of fire occurrence is important.
The earlier analysis mentioned before shows that over 75 percent of the burnt area in Indonesia was idle or abandoned land that had been subject to burning in previous years. Managed landscapes like large-scale concessions, in contrast, are far more likely to be fire-free.
Operational experience in Riau has shown that the overall fire danger rises quickly with extended consecutive days without rain. There is a clear correlation between lower rainfall and fire ignitions and a strong relationship between more than seven days without rain and increased fire starts and intensity.
That is because when fine fuels like leaves, twigs and grass are dry, they are easier to light, burn hotter and burn more area in less time. They are also more difficult to control and often cause damage to existing crops and infrastructure.
While there is limited publicly available data on fire in tropical forest areas, operational experience shows that fires are more likely in areas where there is a new development, mainly where there is a land-use change associated with new agriculture.
A Fire Risk Mapping initiative across Riau – using inputs related to human access and recorded encroachment – has predicted fire ignitions with up to 85 percent accuracy (based on APRIL internal data).
But it is important to remember that while understanding causation is critical, effective solutions cannot be about blame. Long-term solutions are only likely to be effective when they address the root cause rather than continuing to focus on the symptoms.
What can we do for future fire prevention efforts?
There are certainly a number of actions individuals, companies and the government can take to understand and address the core issues and resolve some of the complexity.
This is especially the case in tropical forest regions because, as noted above, fires are predominantly started by people typically involved in preparing land for agricultural activity.
Fire prevention, one element in a broader fire management strategy which also includes preparation and suppression, can be a particularly effective intervention.
Initiatives like the Fire Free Village Program (FFVP) by APRIL Group demonstrate that communities and companies can work together to develop viable and sustainable fire prevention programs by identifying and addressing the root causes of burning in a respectful and collaborative way.
There is also a need for the appropriate institutional frameworks to assist companies and communities in managing these increasingly important issues.
The Pelalawan District Fire Klaster (or cluster) pilot in Riau is one example where stakeholders are provided with a platform to come together to discuss, plan and coordinate responses at the local level.
Equally, industry platforms like the Indonesian-based FFA have allowed parties to share information on best practices, effective interventions and techniques in a trusted and open way.
Most importantly, governments have a leading role to play in fire prevention. Operational evidence since 2015 shows that increased community awareness and government enforcement of fire management regulations have played a key role in raising the profile of fires as a critical social and environmental issue.
Fires do not respect boundaries or lines on a map, so increasing collaboration between all stakeholders, including government, business and communities and embracing a shared responsibility is essential to building an effective response to forest and land fires.
How prepared is the APRIL Group to prevent potential fires?
We focus on preventing fires before they start, which is supported by our fire suppression capability.
We use advanced satellite hotspot monitoring from two NASA-based systems – NOAA and MODIS satellites that detect thermal anomaly within 1.1 square kilometers. Three 30-meter fire monitoring towers, fifty 18-meter towers and fifty 65-meter CCTV towers are scattered across our concession areas.
Having this information allows us to share our concession maps to the Global Forest Watch.
Our fire suppression resources include one helicopter, two airboats, 39 lookout towers, 521 water pumps and firefighting training for 724 volunteers across 48 Riau villages.
The company has 1,080 rapid response team members involving 260 professional firefighters. An emergency team of 30 dedicated firefighters is on standby in the area 24/7.
There is also a fire coordination center located close to our operations to support fire monitoring and extinguishing across all APRIL and supplier concessions.
In total, we have invested approximately more than $9 million.
How do you raise awareness of the problem within the community level?
We are working relentlessly to enforce a no-burn policy across our forestry concessions and in the communities where we operate. FFVP focuses on understanding the root causes of burning, shifting the approach from blaming communities to working with them to find solutions.
Local communities are provided with tools for alternative farming systems that do not involve the use of fire. This is complemented by educational and awareness initiatives to encourage behavioral change.
The FFVP also partners with local NGOs, the government at all levels, 80 communities, local agencies, including the police, military and the Disaster Management Agency.
Are there any success stories with the FFVP initiative?
As of 2019, we have covered up to 36 villages and a total of 753,604 hectares – an area almost ten times the size of Singapore. There is also a decline in fires and burnt areas of about 90 percent within participating communities.
Based on the progress over the past five years, we will also continue to develop our approach.
How does the FFA contribute to combating the fire issue?
Fire management programs run by FFA partners have significantly reduced the number of fires and the impact of smoke haze on children, the elderly and other vulnerable members of the community.
We are committed to the continued development of tools to assist in the implementation of fire prevention programs, as well as to increase training for personnel using the most up to date systems for fire incident response and management.
From a company perspective, has the government paid enough attention to the matter in hand?
The central government responded strongly to the 2015 catastrophic fires with new regulations, stronger enforcement. They have also increased pressure on local government agencies to meet their responsibilities.
Ensuring that enforcement agencies have the appropriate resources to take effective and consistent action remains an important priority for the government.