Equipped with firemen uniforms, water hoses, a pump and axes, rice farmers in Garantung village on Indonesia’s part of Borneo seem more like a professional fire-fighting squad than field hands. But every year – after torching old rice paddies to make way for their next harvests – they brace apprehensively for the mighty blazes to spiral out of control, spreading, at times, to nearby forests.
Slash-and-burn techniques have been part of rice growing traditions for generations in Garantung in Central Kalimantan province, and experts say that’s unlikely to change without strict legal enforcement or clear economic incentives to use other land clearing methods.
The even bigger problem for the village, is that it harbours a large area of peatland, which becomes dry and catches fire easily when it has been drained for the paddy fields.
Within minutes, the landscape can be transformed into an inferno.
Every year, the burning of degraded peatlands in Indonesia – especially in the provinces in the islands of Borneo and Sumatra — generates a thick, dark haze that blankets parts of Malaysia and Singapore causing air pollution to reach dangerously high levels.
And because greenhouse gas emissions from the conversion of peatland forests are up to 50 percent to 100 percent higher than those from the deforestation of normal rainforests, there are also important implications for Indonesia’s participation in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+.
The U.N.-backed scheme seeks to channel funds to forest-rich developing countries that agree not to cut down trees.
It’s a key part of global efforts to slow climate change. But it’s also helping the villagers manage the fires — the funds for a REDD+ scheme in Central Kalimantan have been used to provide villagers with high-quality fire equipment and protective gear as well as fire safety training.
They are taught how to put out fires quickly, particularly when it comes to peatlands, which naturally acts as sponges that can no longer retain water when they are repeatedly burned.
“However complete and however great the equipment is, if there is no genuine will by the people, it will be far more difficult to convince them not to use fire,” said Supardi, who is the head of the sub-district Maliku, which includes Garantung village.
Daryo, a resident of Garantung agrees, saying he does not see farming practices changing in his village any time soon.
Even when harvests are expected to be bad, farmers continue to burn the remnants of rice stalks to try to encourage new sprouts to emerge.
Daryo says he is among only a handful of other farmers who have started planting five to 10 rubber trees on their lands instead — which only require the clearing of land once a decade, compared to annually for rice.
It’s a promising venture, he says, noting the trees can be tapped almost every day, and the sap sold to buy daily necessities.
But most of the farmers are reluctant to switch away from rice.
“They need to see that it works on a larger scale before they follow doing what I am doing,” Daryo said, adding he no longer has to burn at all.
Abetnego Tarigan, an environmental activist and chief of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), agrees.
“The argument falls to a single word: practicality,” he said.
“Unless smoke haze triggered from those fires significantly and directly affects their daily lives, neither people on the ground, nor corporations will stop using fires to slash and burn.”