DAMAGE TO THE PEATLAND in Riau Province, according to Haris Gunawan, can be categorized in three types: heavy damage and continuous forest fires, mild damage with clearing of the forests and shrub invasion, and low damage with partial cutting of the forest. We also need to realize that the draining channels are the single factor that is present in all three types of peatland damage.
ALEXANDER COBB→ It seems like there are three factors for having fires in Southeast Asia, and in particular in peatlands. So one is drainage. So you have a peatland, you drain it, the water table goes low, all of the peat that previously was below water and therefore not combustible becomes dry and becomes combustible.
Then you have dry conditions, usually from an El Niño year. So that conditions are especially dry, the water table goes even lower. And then you have ignition somehow. It could be a match, it could be lightning, it could be anything. So if you have those three ingredients, so if you have a drained peatland, you have a dry period like an El Niño year, and you have access by people, then you will get a fire, and once a fire starts then, usually they last until it starts to rain.
We interviewed Rizal an independent small farmer who recently adopted the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) guidelines, and also Pawito Saring a farmer whose entire crop is purchased by Asian Agri a large palm oil processing company.
RIZAL→ There are many challenges for us small farmers to open a new farm. OK so, big companies can afford to buy heavy machines. It is difficult for us small farmers to open new farms. We can't afford to rent heavy machines. To be honest yes, in the past we burned to clear the land. We don't burn any more since we joined the RSPO process (). Because we now realize that it creates haze and pollutes the air. We still cut the trees but, how to say, only those that are in the way.
PAWITO SARING→ Speaking about clearing the land, in those early days of the oil palm plantations we just received orders. The plantations were already there when we arrived here as transmigrants. We just maintained them and learned the right way to grow the palm trees. We didn't use our own fire. We don't use fire now. We use a new method now, it is called cutting and chipping, and we collect what is left. We don't use fire.
RUDI SYAF→ How can we catch a person red-handed when they burn a remote forest? We did ground checks and those fires seemed intentional. We also found in the police report that 14 of the 20 cases were suspicious and went to the Prosecutor's Office, but only two cases ever went to court. Those two companies were declared innocent by the panel of judges. Why? Because there is no hard evidence of them burning the forest intentionally. The court wants us to catch the arsonists red-handed, but that is difficult because of the massive area of the forest fire.
SUHERMAN→ In 2015 people were still burning the land. Because the rule said that you can burn up to one hectare. But now even half a hectare, or any small area, is not allowed anymore. We use the sickle now, we cut the plants by hand. We no longer burn the land. Because the side effects are clear, especially the smoke.
We realize that the smoke travels to other provinces in Indonesia, it even reaches neighboring countries, they also feel the after effects. People are realizing the negative effects of burning the land.
CHARLES HARVEY→ A lot of the drainage is to make agriculture easier. So if you look at, just at a Google Earth image of oil palm plantations, you will see a grid of drainage canals. These basically make the peat into something that's less swampy, easier to move around on. They are also used initially for deforesting the land because you can float the logs out in these ditches. The concept of draining channels needs rethinking and fixing. By closing the channels or refilling them with soil we can also use sections of the channels to keep the water level high.