Stopping haze when it rains: lessons learned from 20 years of Alternatives-to-Slash-and-Burn research in Indonesia

More than 20 years of research and action have brought new insights but the issues are still on the agenda: every time episodes with haze and land-clearing fires draw the attention of policy makers, once the rains come, the urgency of change is forgotten.

 

Haze derived from land-clearing fires in Indonesia—which cause massive disruption not only to the province of origin but also to neighbouring countries—comes back on the policy agenda with a predictable pattern. The years that El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole conspire to cause exceptionally dry periods (as in 1997/8 and 2015) form the peak season for fires but the issue is never far away.

A defining issue has emerged over the last 20 years: the limited attention span of the policy debate. In the heat of argument during any particular fire-and-haze crisis promises are made to prevent a reoccurrence but real action beyond rhetoric remains to be seen.

Smoke from peat fires burning on thousands of hectares blankets entire regions. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Smoke from peat fires burning on thousands of hectares blankets entire regions. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Our key findings from two decades of research under the umbrella of the Alternatives to Slash and Burn: Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins (ASB) program—with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development  Cooperation, European Union and the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility—focus on the need to shift the costs to, and benefits from, those who use fire to clear forests. As long as excessive logging and conversion of forests pays while non-burning conversion costs more than the use of fire, the temptation to rely on this shortcut will persist. This more so because land and forest ownership remains contested.

We have documented cases where international market pressure helps locally to make conversion of the major fuel for the fires—peatlands—to oil palm less attractive but apparently there are still other markets that don’t sufficiently care about where their raw materials come from. Meanwhile, alternative, low-impact, land-use options and their value chains remain underdeveloped.

Conversion of peat-swamp forests to oil-palm monocultures underlies efforts to reduce haze. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Conversion of peat-swamp forests to oil-palm monocultures underlies efforts to reduce haze. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

The real issue underlying prevention of fire and haze disrupting lives and economies in the region is how land-use decisions and rights are handled. Without serious law enforcement and public ‘naming and shaming’, the incentives remain high to ignore or circumvent rules because conversion using fire remains the cheapest method.

A substantial change in economic incentives is needed that can include the threat of loss of markets and investors and increased non-compliance costs through fines and court convictions. And without clarity on ‘adat’ or customary land claims, the ‘one map’ effort being pursued by various agencies in Indonesia to help coordinate reduction of fires and other land issues misses a critical element. Emerging, voluntary standards for ‘low-footprint’ commodities in global trade need to be expanded nationally and support is needed for low-impact agroforestry and forestry options, particularly restoration on peatlands.

Burnt peatland. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Burnt peatland. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Twenty years of research by the World Agroforestry Centre and partners in a global coalition has, unfortunately, not yet made the ‘hot topic’ of fires and haze redundant. Beyond increased understanding, solutions will have to emerge within the complex reality of sustainable development at village, district, provincial and national levels.

Background

At the Rio conference in 1992 where global conventions on climate change and biodiversity were adopted, the seeds were sown for a globally-supported effort in, and by, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cameroon, Brazil and Peru to identify, support and implement ‘alternatives to slash-and-burn’. In 1995, the first report of ASB Indonesia pointed to the urgency and complexity of the issue of changes in tropical forest margins. Starting from the 1995 ASB Indonesia report and the analysis of underlying causes of the 1997/8 fires, technical, social and economic understanding has increased and there now is a general willingness to act, with conflict-reducing solutions in some places (see ASB briefs for examples) but still the ‘ability to act’ is short of what is needed.

In brief

Findings Policy implications
The fire-and-haze issue is the tip of an iceberg of land-use change in tropical forest and peatlands The real issue is how land-use decisions and rights are handled
Non-burning conversion methods exist but cost more than use of fire Without serious law enforcement and public ‘naming and shaming’ the incentives remain high to ignore and circumvent rules
Excessive logging and conversion of forests pays A substantial change in economic incentives (including loss of markets and investors, increased costs of noncompliance) is needed
Land and forest ownership remains contested Without clarity on ‘adat’ land claims the ‘one-map’ efforts miss a key element
Command-and-control systems remain weak, international market pressure helps locally Emerging voluntary standards for ‘low-footprint’ commodities need to expand nationally
Attractive alternative land-use options are scarce Support is needed for low-impact agroforestry and forestry options and restoration on peat

 

Read the brief

Tata HL, van Noordwijk M, Sakuntaladewi N, Wibowo LR, Bastoni, Tampubolon AP, Susmianto A, Widayati A. 2015. Stopping haze when it rains: lessons learnt in 20 years of Alternatives-to-Slash-and-Burn research in Indonesia. ASB Brief 45. Nairobi: ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins.

 

 

 

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This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

 

 

 

M.vanNoordwijk@cgiar.org'

Meine van Noordwijk

Meine van Noordwijk is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre. He joined the organization in 1993. Dr van Noordwijk guided the global integration of the Centre’s science and co-led ICRAF's global research program on environmental services. He also participated in a number of bilateral projects and is professor of agroforestry at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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