JAKARTA, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One of Indonesia's most unique biosphere reserves is at risk of being destroyed by forest fires unless local and national government can work together to save it, a UNESCO expert says.
Covering around 700,000 hectares of the Bengkalis and Siak subdistricts of Riau province, Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu was declared a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 2009, in recognition of the way it balances conservation and sustainable use.
Giam Siak is home to two wildlife reserves that provide a sanctuary for endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran elephant. The area also has 78,000 hectares of its mainly tropical peatland forest allocated for timber-industry concessions.
Now Giam Siak's existence is being threatened by forest fires allegedly caused by illegal logging. The latest blaze reached Giam Siak's core zone – the site of its timber industry – in early March, a month after fires first appeared in the forests of Riau.
According to Yohanes Purwanto, executive director of Man and the Biosphere UNESCO-Indonesia, by the time the fires were put out in early April, around 2,900 hectares had been destroyed.
"We are talking about massive loss of biodiversity, much of which we have yet to discover its uses and benefits," he said. "Not to mention damaged habitat which will take years to recover."
The search for the source of the fires has led investigators to 20,000 hectares of unmonitored land in parts of Giam Siak, which allows open access to encroachers clearing land mainly for palm oil plantations.
“Most of the hotspots were revealed to be coming from these ‘no man’s land’ areas," said Purwanto, adding that fires set in peatland forests are difficult to fully extinguish because they can keep burning, unseen, under the soil.
FIGHT FIRES WITH JOBS
Supriyadi, the head of spatial planning at the Riau Development Planning Agency, said that local government is supposed to be overseeing Riau's forest areas. However, before assigning responsibility, the Development Planning Agency and the Ministry of Forestry must decide which status to give the various parts of Riau's forests, including which should be made conservation areas and which should be granted permission for development – a costly process that has been stalled by budget constraints.
“Only 1.7 million hectares of Riau's 9 million hectares was given the forest areas release permit by the Ministry of Forestry, which means that we are allowed to build or make land-use changes in those areas,” said Supriyadi. “Meanwhile, the remaining areas are still forest areas."
As long as there is uncertainty over who is in charge of parts of Riau, said UNESCO's Purwanto, Giam Siak remains vulnerable to forest fires.
“One of our hopes is for local government to clarify the ownership for those no man’s lands, because tackling the fires is easier when you know who’s responsible for which areas," he said.
Purwanto also wants to see authorities working more closely together to help create sustainable jobs – such as fish farming or planting rubber – for local communities.
“We don’t want Man and the Biosphere to be just a slogan," he said. "We need government to encourage more empowerment, because that’s the key. If people’s welfare is achieved they would not need to turn to illegal logging.”
Until a long-term solution can be found, Surano, head of the Fire Fighting and Damage Control Unit at the Ministry of Forestry, said that the ministry has been approaching local timber companies to try to convince them to arm themselves with fire extinguishers and build retention basins to provide water to put out any future fires.
“We are reaching dry season, from June to August," he said. "So we need to increase awareness to stop these fires from happening again."
Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.