In their natural state peat-swamp forests, like the Sebangau National Park, are permanently waterlogged and fire resistant. Drainage canals, dug illegally to remove timber and to develop plantations, dry out the peat leading to annual dry season forest fires, with drought conditions further intensified every 5 or so years during El Niño.
In 2015, massive fires raged for months, burning over 957 K hectares in Indonesian Borneo and exposing 69 million people to toxic smoke, causing the premature death of up to 17,000 people. The fires and smoke resulted in a US$30 billion loss to the Indonesian economy and a carbon emission rate that exceeded that from fossil fuels across the entire European Union. Carbon leaching poisoned fish stocks, the major source of protein for local communities. The fire crisis requires major interventions at all levels, from national policy down to local government and community action. We are working to address the root causes of the fires through implementation of our integrated, community-based fire-prevention strategy for the region.
We direct resources towards both prevention and emergency response as we are committed to reducing the risk of fires and improving local capacity to fight the flames.
We block man-made drainage canals in Sebangau National Park by building dams made from sustainably-sourced materials and designed by peat hydrology experts. Dams are built on each canal, with large multiple-walled dams at the canal mouths and simpler dams at regular intervals along each canal. The dams slow the rate of dry-season drawdown; retaining water in the ecosystem, raising the water table and keeping the peat wet. Forest litterfall fills the canals in naturally, and the dams discourage people from entering the forest to remove timber and other forest products. We monitor the dammed canals regularly by measuring water flow and water tables, and checking and repairing dams as necessary. We have seen the rate of water discharge from the forest slow by 40-70% when compared to that of unblocked canals.
Although habitat restoration is underway, the risk of forest fires remains high, and fully trained and equipped fire-fighting teams are essential to prevent further deforestation. We support four community fire-fighting teams in Sebangau Subdistrict and neighbouring villages to ensure each team is well-equipped and fully prepared in advance of fires. During the dry season the teams are on high alert to search for and extinguish fires, and the firefighters are frequently called into action. We are using thermal drones to improve fire detection capability, as finding and extinguishing fires in the shortest possible time after they start is critical. Our long-term objective is to develop a network of local fire-fighting groups that can support each other and use the network for accessing training and funding opportunities, share experiences, and create a permanent fire-fighting fund accessible for all groups when it is most needed.
Education & Raising Awareness
We deliver educational sessions to families, youth clubs, schools, village governance and special interest groups within local communities to raise awareness of the causes and impacts of fire, discuss alternative land clearance practices and better management of fire, and engage with stakeholders and policy-makers to develop long-term solutions. This is complemented by awareness-raising campaigns via local radio, TV and print, exhibitions, public events and social media.