A peat land area in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, earlier this month. (Antara Photo/Saptono)

Plan to Ban Land Burning Sparks Concern About Indigenous People


NOVEMBER 12, 2015

Jakarta. In a bid to prevent another devastating fire and haze crisis, the Indonesian government wants to scrap regulations that allow small-scale farmers to clear land by setting it on fire, a key minister said on Wednesday, but activists fear that such a move would also rule out traditional agriculture.

After apologizing for the recent haze crisis, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan told a discussion organized by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club that the administration of President Joko Widodo plans to revoke regulations that allow farmers to set forests and peat lands on fire for land clearing purposes.

Traditional agriculture

The minister was referring to Law No. 32 on Environment Protection and Management from 2009 and a 2010 regulation from the Environment Ministry, which allow for land to be set on fire to clear a maximum two hectares of land per family as part of traditional slash and burn agriculture.

In the 2009 law also states that farmers are only allowed to plant local varieties in the burned area, and are required to leave a gap in combustible materials that acts as a barrier to halt or at least slow down wildfires.

The firebreak method can be man-made or occur naturally where there happens to be a river, lake or canyon.

The 2010 ministerial regulation states that farmers will have to report to the local village head prior to setting any land on fire.

Luhut said on Wednesday that the government considered a ban on burning as one of the most effective measures to prevent and cope with the land fire and haze problem.

The minister, however, did not say when the government expected to repeal the law, a possibly lengthy process that would also involve the House of Representatives.

A canal at a peat land area in Tumbang Nusa, Central Kalimantan, late last month. (Antara Photo/Saptono)

Cheap option

Conservationists say that certain parties could use the regulations currently in place as a legal base to gain access to cheap land for commercial development regardless of the devastating impact to the environment.

"The law is problematic, because who can control fires within a particular two hectares area when it is really dry?" Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative, told the Jakarta Globe in an e-mail exchange.

Meijaard was referring to the prolonged dry season in Indonesia this year due to a severe El Nino.

"If there are certain people that finance burning so that ultimately they can claim land and develop it, they could simply hire a number of [local] people to each burn two hectares and then take all these small patches together into one larger area for development," he added.

Clearing land manually or with the use of machines is much more expensive than simply setting it alight.

"[But] it becomes increasingly clear that the cost savings made through burning compared to manual or machine clearing of land do not weigh up to the social and environmental costs," said Meijaard, who has called the recent haze crisis the "biggest environmental crime of this century."

Months of uncontrolled man-made fires in forests and on peat lands resulted in this year's record-breaking haze crisis, which the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) has labeled as "a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions."

Tens of millions Indonesians were reported to have been affected by the toxic smoke, as well as people in Singapore, Malaysia and as far away as Thailand.

Data from the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) showed Indonesia's forest fires have emitted carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day, which is more than the 14 million tons emitted on a daily basis by the entire United States.

Indigenous rights

Meijaard said that a total fire ban was not likely to be heeded because too many Indonesian farmers, especially indigenous peoples, depend on burning to open up their fields and grow their hill rice and vegetables.

Indonesia's outspoken watchdog for indigenous peoples' rights indeed lambasted the government's plan to revoke the 2009 law, citing concerns about food supplies and incomes and arguing that indigenous people had nothing to do with recent crisis.

"Why [does the government] all of a sudden [try to] ban indigenous peoples from opening land by burning when their activities never caused forest fires in the first place?" Abdon Nababan, the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday.

"Indigenous peoples will not burn land that is already dry," Abdon said, "while companies burn wet peat areas to clear the way for their plantations."

"This has been proven as there were no areas owned by the indigenous peoples that caught fire during this year's disaster, and Luhut is aware of this fact," Abdon said.

Fire-fighting efforts at a burning peat land in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, late last month. (Antara Photo/Saptono)

Data from the World Resources Institute in September showed that 37 percent of the fires in Sumatra occurred on pulpwood concessions.

In the same month, Indonesian police arrested seven executives over alleged land burning, including a senior executive from Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH), which was a supplier to Jakarta-based paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

Assistance for farmers

Abdon stressed that indigenous peoples always implement firebreak methods when they burn land and never abandon the area when a fire is still raging, to make sure fires do not grow out of control.

The activist also pointed out that indigenous peoples only plant crops that are considered as local varieties, such as paddy and tubers as part of subsistence agriculture, not commercial trees like palm oil or eucalyptus.

"Burning land is currently the only available way for [indigenous people] to reduce the acidity of land so that they can plant their crops," Abdon said.

If the government indeed revokes the law permitting small-scale farmers to open land by burning, Abdon said it also needs to ensure that farmers can survive, for instance by providing excavators to clear land and minerals to reduce the acidity of the soil.

The AMAN director said 10 tons of dolomite are needed to make one hectare land of land suitable for traditional farmers to grow their crops.

"The question is: Is there enough room in our state budget to provide those things?" Abdon said. "Unless Luhut can ensure food security for the farmers ... then I think he's either trying to kill these people or create social unrest."

Indigenous Kajang people in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi. (Antara Photo/Sahrul Manda Tikupadang)

 One step at a time

Mario Saputra, an expert from the environmental group Sawit Watch, said that sustainable methods of agriculture generally are beyond the reach of small-scale farmers because of higher costs.

"They don't have enough cash to purchase the equipment for land clearing, and also they will lose too much time before they can start planting," Mario explained.

He also argued that the government has failed to do its part in providing incentives for palm oil farmers who wish to use sustainable methods, citing a 2006 Agriculture Ministry regulation that prohibits small-scale farmers from obtaining bank loans for their business.

Meijaard said that a total and enforced land burning ban should not be taken out of consideration completely, but be developed and enforced in stages, to allow for people to adapt.

He said it could start by banning peat burning while fire outside peat areas would need to be phased out over time. And the government must be ready to provide technical assistance and subsidies for the farmers to change their agricultural practices, he added.

However, a total fire ban could be key policy instrument to help keep the haze in check in future years.

"In very dry years, I think a full fire ban needs to be on standby so it can be declared, announced and enforced nationally whenever it is too dangerous to burn," Meijaard said.