Reducing fire risk in Central Kalimantan: What will it take?

By Joyce Wong and Quinn Marshall

Central Kalimantan is home to a large proportion of Indonesia’s carbon-rich peat forests—many of which have been drained for agricultural use and palm oil plantations, leaving them degraded and vulnerable to the spread of uncontrolled fires.  This risk is heightened during the dry season, when farmers prepare their land for planting.  Fire has long dominated as the most common and attractive method to clear land—it’s the least expensive and helps with pest eradication and short-term soil fertility.  However, extreme dry periods increase the risk that these fires will spread into the larger uncontrolled peat fires which account for a large proportion of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions, with significant health, economic, and environmental consequences.

As part of CGSD’s USAID-funded collaboration with the Center for Climate Risk and Opportunity Management in Southeast Asia Pacific to build capacity for adaptation to climate risks, we’re conducting research to support the development and implementation of an economic incentive system to reduce fire risk, particularly during periods of extreme drought. We are identifying feasible, attractive alternatives to fire use during the dry season, as well as the barriers, costs, institutions and policies associated with their adoption. We have been discussing with diverse stakeholders – from the national to village level – in order to gain perspective on the types of incentives and institutions that could contribute to proactive fire prevention.

We will spend a total of three months in Indonesia for our Masters in Development Practice summer field placement. Our first month has already given us a more robust understanding of the local drivers of dangerous fire activity, as well as current practices to contain it.  Of particular interest are traditional Dayak methods to plan and control fire use.  For example, farmers create buffer zones (devoid of combustible vegetation around their plots) and multiple people patrol the perimeter once fire begins. Villages often require permission from the village head to use fire, and impose sanctions on those who allow fire to spread.

While studies have often focused on the role of traditional swidden or slash and burn agriculture in the spread of fire, with farmers increasingly moving to rubber and oil palm, and government programs to facilitate transition to sedentary farming systems, we get the impression that slash and burn agriculture’s role in spread of dangerous fire may be diminishing.  So, where is the fire coming from?  We have repeatedly heard from communities and NGOs that “outsiders” – primarily hunters and fishermen – enter unmanaged land with unclear ownership around communities and are careless with fire, leaving cooking fires unattended.

This perceived role of “outsiders” and lack of ownership of unmanaged, degraded land may have serious implications for who an incentive system should target and the types of incentives that could reduce fire risk.  Simply compensating farmers for adopting alternatives to fire may not suffice if land surrounding the communities is open to outsiders.  A more integrated package of incentives might involve formal land certificates that would motivate farmers to avoid burning and empower them to protect their land.

We’re excited to explore some of the challenges we hear from villagers with local government agencies, and learn about existing programs that could be part of a package of incentives – as well as discuss the potential for new ones.
Joyce Wong and Quinn Marshall are current graduate students at Columbia University’s Masters in Development Practice Program

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