Memories of Fires Past

A peatland fire

My next zoom reading is from my story Memories of Fires Past. This story was inspired by three events.

An encounter with the fires of 2003 that surrounded and enveloped part of Australia’s capital city, Canberra.

Travelling to Riau Province, Indonesia with a group of people from the Singapore based environmental group PM Haze, at the invitation of the Asian Pulp and Paper company (APP). This involved site visits to APP’s operation. The company has extensive acacia and eucalyptus plantations in Riau that are used to produce wood pulp got paper production. The visit included a helicopter flight over the Riau, an eye-opening and in some ways shocking experience because for the first time I saw the scope of deforestation, from the air.

Finally there was a third visit, again with members of PM Haze. This time it involved building a small dam to help re-wet peatland that had been drained in preparation for the development of a wood pulp plantation on Palau Tebingtinggi that had not proceeded.

Deforestation on Peatlands

Indonesia has about 56% of the world tropical peat lands and Riau has about 19.3 % of the total.

Peatlands in Indonesia, however, have been extensively converted for agricultural production since the 1980s, mainly into oil palm and pulpwood (Acacia) plantations.

Certainly this was not the first time I’d seen deforestation. Visiting East Kalimantan years earlier, before the devastation fires of the 1997/98 El Niño year fires I was shocked by the destruction. I wrote of this:

Heading north out of Balikpapan on one of Borneo’s few major sealed roads, my sense of romantic anticipation was tempered by a sudden blunt and rational awareness. Close to Balikpapan, settlers had established ladang (cultivated farm land) entirely replacing primary rainforest. Further along the road, the full impact of logging without any reassignment of the land to agricultural uses was soon evident. Where once there had been rainforest providing abundant cover for the Japanese, a wasteland appeared. Massive stretches of forest had been clear- felled with the litter of branches and chaotic secondary regrowth surrounding the road. This devastated land was depressing but I reassured myself with romantic visions of the interior.

In the distance, a high wooden platform appeared; it looked like an observation platform surrounded by a picnic area. Beyond it were neat rows of plants set out on a grid system and extending over many hectares as far as one could see.

“What’s that platform over there?” I asked. “It looks like an observation deck.”

“That is Bukit Suharto,” Paul answered, “a gift from our President so that visitors can enjoy the natural beauty.”

Accustomed to the official television documentaries of the Suharto era colloquially termed Cinta Negara, which meant Loving the Nation, I sensed that while Paul’s words were in this genre they were also subtly and deeply sarcastic.

About this reading

For the discussion following this reading I’ve invited a friend, Dr Prayoto Tonoto. We first met on that visit to Riau organised by APP.

Subsequently we met again on a PM Haze project that involved damming a canal dug through peat lands to drain them for plantation development. The plantation was not developed but the destruction remained. Wild fires burning through the area in 2015 added to the problem.

When Prayoto was born in Riau in 1980, oil palms occupied less than 10,000ha of the. When he turned 21 and started working at the Riau Provincial Forestry Service, the figure exceeded 1,000,000 hectares. It now exceeds 4,000,000 hectares.

Some of Prayoto’s publications:
Sustainable development of carbon sinks? Lessons from three types of peatland partnerships in Indonesia

Tasik Ulu Mahmud, Pertahanan Terakhir Ekosistemsistem Gambut Desa Lukun

Overlapping Land Claims Limit the Use of Satellites to Monitor No-Deforestation Commitments and No-Burning Compliance

Legal History of Peatland Management in Riau by Dr Prayoto Tonoto

Memories of Fires Past – the story

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