By Cory Rogers


This article was originally published on Mongabay and is republished with permission.


  • Indonesia's vast peat swamp zones have been widely drained and dried for agriculture and made highly flammable. In the dry season they burn uncontrollably when farmers and companies use fire to clear land.
  • Last year's fires sent toxic haze billowing across Southeast Asia, polluting the air above Singapore, Malaysia and other countries. They sickened half a million people in Indonesia and emitted more carbon than the entire EU during the same period.
  • To prevent another crisis, President Joko Widodo has ordered a law enforcement crackdown on illegal burning, and already the police have arrested hundreds of people.
  • Indigenous tribes who have relied on slash-and-burn for centuries, however, say that they need to be allowed to keep burning, and that they may face a food crisis if they cannot.


Slash and Burn Sept 5 Linkedin


Come August in Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan, it is time for the indigenous Dayak Iban to burn the land and plant the dry rice, or ladang, that will feed them the following year.


“If we don’t plant ladang, we don’t eat,” said Apay Hudi, a lithe, silver-haired resident of the Sungai Utik longhouse, pausing as he fastened a new handle to an old, rusty field machete.


He said local officials were trying to wean the community off ladang and onto wet paddy cultivation, but irrigation challenges meant the fields weren’t ready.


Needing ash for fertilizer and lacking suitable alternatives, Hudi said burning for ladang was a fait accompli. “Besides burning, there’s no other way for us to plant it.”


The government sees things differently. One afternoon a few weeks ago, military men showed up at the longhouse with a warning: Stop the ladang burning or face fines, even jail time. Dozens of Dayak tribes in the area have been given a similar warning, as have farmers across the country — part of Indonesia’s crackdown on the annual scourge of haze-belching agricultural fires.


Collectively, these Dayak tribes occupy a sixth of the district of Kapuas Hulu, a 28,000-square-kilometer chunk of lowland forest at the eastern edge of West Kalimantan province, deep in the heart of Indonesian Borneo. Though these homelands have been mapped, they are not recognized by the government, meaning communities like the Iban are on constant guard for encroachments by oil palm plantation firms.


Twenty-eight Iban families live in the Sungai Utik longhouse with Hudi, one of several customary Dayak homes still standing in the district. The space is a marvel of interdependence: in the 200-meter-long foyer, young and old make handicrafts and prepare food by day, waiting for groups tending the fields and foraging the forests to return home. In the evening, adults gather to sip ijuk, a sap drained from the enau tree, and chat well into the night.


Apay Janggut, head of the Sungai Utik longhouse. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago


The soldiers’ warning was sudden, but not altogether unexpected: it stretches back to an instruction issued by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the height of last year’s haze crisis, one of the worst on record. The instruction ordered a law enforcement crackdown on fires, and Jokowi threatened to sack local officials who failed to rein them in.


With smallholder slash-and-burn a consensus driver of Indonesia’s annual haze epidemic, the instruction, as well as Jokowi’s ban on peatland development and new oil palm concessions, were hailed as much-needed reforms.


Indeed, on the strength of those measures, record numbers of arrests and, above all, a milder dry season, fires are down 61 percent compared to last year, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.


But the threat of prosecution is forcing indigenous groups like the Iban into a high-stakes wager: burn for ladang and chance arrest, or comply with the ban and risk a food crisis. It also contradicts a 2009 environmental law designed to protect indigenous slash-and-burn.


“They said they would provide paddy, but where is this paddy?” said Sungai Utik village head Apay Remang.


“If they say we can’t burn ladang and there’s not paddy to farm, we won’t be able to eat,” he said.


“For us, the chance of a food crisis is extraordinary.”


An Iban man in Sungai Utik. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago


‘We don’t burn the forest, we burn ladang’


Despite the fire ban, haze is back in August, with farmers taking advantage of peak dry weather conditions in Sumatra and Kalimantan to burn land for a variety of crops. Sixty percent of the fires burning last week were started outside company concessions, according to Global Forest Watch.


But in Kapuas Hulu, as in other regions, slash-and-burn is a varied practice, and experts suggest that by failing to tailor policy to the different types, indigenous farmers have been unfairly targeted.


“We need to have powerful institutions at the local level to control the burning, because it is impossible for zero burning in agriculture,” said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a thinktank based outside Jakarta.


Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, is shaded white, Kapuas Hulu red.


“But we need also to have a space for tradition, and [for] indigenous people to do burning.”


For hundreds of years, Dayak tribes have used fire to clear forests and fertilize soil as part of a rotational system called swidden, where 1-2 hectare plots of land are farmed for a year or two before being abandoned to regenerate. Five to 10 years later, the reforested plot is cleared again by fire and the cycle repeats.


“The important thing to understand,” explained Remang, the chief of Sungai Utik village, “is we don’t burn forest. We burn ladang.”


Iban lands being burned, in other words, are better understood as regenerated ladang grounds long held in the swidden cycle.


“We have our own ‘spatial plan’ that has been passed down through the generations, which includes where you can and cannot plant ladang,” he said.


Though Iban zoning includes areas for rubber planting, subsistence ladang farming remains the prime focus of the community’s agricultural life, and according to Remang, there are customary fines in place to ensure fires rarely jump fields.


“Traditionally, local people have all kinds of safeguards in place when they burn their fields…whole systems to keep wildfires from escaping,” said Moira Moeliono of CIFOR.


“Compared to the overall scale [of burning in Indonesia], the patches burned by swidden is not really that significant,” she added.  


In a burning observed by Mongabay in Sungai Utik, such precautions were on display.


Two men and one woman patrolled the edge of a soccer field-sized ladang plot set ablaze near the longhouse, dousing flames that looked poised to escape with jugs of water. When the jugs ran out, children were on hand to whisk them away.


A Dayak Iban man burns his field. Photo by Cory Rogers


Iban children stand by with water in case their parents need to put out errant flames during a burning near the longhouse. Photo by Cory Rogers


Smoke plumes are seen from a land-clearing fire near the Sungai Utik longhouse in August. Photo by Cory Rogers

Top: An Iban man patrols his field during a traditional burning in August, a tank of water on his back. Middle: Children stand by with water in case their parents need to put out errant flames. Above: The view from the longhouse nearby. Photos by Cory Rogers


In a matter of hours, all that was left of the blaze were smoldering stumps and smoke curling up in the breeze.


Forest pioneers


On the other side of Kapuas Hulu’s forest-burning spectrum are the smallholders and plantation farmers who eschew the shifting model of cultivation and have no customary fines to enforce safe burning. The impact of these “forest pioneers” on deforestation and haze is likely greater than ladang burning, but a paucity of data makes it hard to prove.


The explosion of pioneer farming in West Kalimantan stretches back to the central government’s transmigration program, when thousands of poor farmers were brought to the province to farm and get new oil palm plantations — a development drive folded into the transmigration program — up and running.


Huge swaths of forest were taken and burned to make way for migrant villages and to plant oil palm, and much of it was taken from indigenous territories. Individual families were given two-hectare farms, and many were obliged to plant oil palm for the government-backed estates nearby.


Importantly, these migrants were most focused on the cultivation of such cash crops.


According to one 1997 study, on these farmlands, “land is usually not fallowed, but is used continuously, and is abandoned only after total or near total exhaustion of the native fertility of the soil, since there is no long-term plan to again return to the same site.”


It is a model predicated on endless deforestation and, with slash-and-burn still in wide use as the cheapest clearing method, inevitable haze.


A man stands before a pile of oil palm fresh fruit bunches at the height of last year's fire and haze crisis in the Central Kalimantan capital of Palangkaraya, one of the hardest hit by the disaster. The orange color is real. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn

A man stands before a pile of oil palm fruit at the height of the 2015 haze crisis in Palangkaraya city, Central Kalimantan, where the air quality plummeted to five times hazardous levels. The orange color is real. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn


“When transmigrants started clearing forests…they didn’t have the local knowledge required [to keep them from spreading],” CIFOR’s Moeliono explained. “That’s when more forests were opened, and these were the ones more susceptible to [turning into] large fires.”


The haze risk was especially acute because — unlike ladang farmers — pioneer farmers planted on highly combustible peatlands where fires are the hardest to put out.


“Traditional Dayaks don’t open land on peat…Even today, the local people say, ‘we are not opening ladang on peat because you can’t plant ladang on peat’,” said Moeliono.


By equating subsistence swidden with the sedentary, non-rotational cultivation of cash crops like oil palm, the government crackdown was continuing a long-running misunderstanding of indigenous farming, Moeliono suggested.


“This blaming of subsistence agriculture for deforestation has been going on since the Dutch colonial times, when it was called ‘robbing agriculture,’ as it was said to be ‘robbing’ the land of its fertility,” she said.


“I think the knowledge about how swidden really works is not really considered or known in the large temporal and spatial context,” she added. “If the fallow period is long enough and the level of the population not that high, it is probably quite sustainable.”


‘Jokowi’s error’


According to Mina Setra, deputy secretary of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the clampdown on ladang is not only questionable from a conceptual frame — it is also illegal.


Indonesia’s 2009 Law on Environmental Protection and Management “clearly prohibits the burning of forest for large plantations like oil palm,” she told Mongabay.


“But there is also an article [Article 62, Paragraph 2] that says for plots of under two hectares, smallholders or indigenous communities can plant local crops.” This has more legal force than a non-binding presidential instruction to stop fires, she added. Indigenous ladang farming should thus be exempt from the ban.


“The presidential instruction doesn’t talk about that, it just orders ‘no burning’,” Setra said.


A sign in Indoneisa's Riau province reads, "Forbidden..!!! Those who burn land and forest are subject to a maximum 15 years imprisonment and 10 billion rupiah ($750,000) fine." Photo by Cory Rogers

A sign in Indonesia’s Riau province reads, “Forbidden..!!! Those who burn land and forest are subject to a maximum 15 years imprisonment and 10 billion rupiah ($750,000) fine.”


“This is Jokowi’s error,” she added.


To correct it, CIFOR’s Purnomo said districts ought to pass their own laws on the question of open burning.


“Every district has different [demographic and agricultural] characteristics,” he said, adding it could be difficult for officials to distinguish between indigenous and non-indigenous farmers given the widespread problem of overlapping land claims; policies issued from Jakarta, he suggested, would invariably be misapplied in the hands of local law enforcers dealing with such complexity.


“The solution, perhaps, is each district needs to develop a district regulation, to regulate open burning, including for palm plantations or investment coming from government,” he said.


This is especially important to prevent future fires. Of the 11 million hectares covered by plantation permits, Purnomo said, only 3 million have been planted.


“That means there are 8 million hectares that have not yet been planted. Many things can happen with that land.”

A Dayak Iban boy in Sungai Utik. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago


In Kapuas Hulu, groups are not waiting for officials to budge on their position, and have pledged to resist the fire ban to ensure they can put food on the table.


In a meeting held last week, Remang said, area Dayak leaders made a pact: if an indigenous individual anywhere in the district gets arrested for burning ladang, every tribe has agreed to journey to the capital Putussibau to get them freed.


“For hundreds of years we’ve all burned ladang. We didn’t have a haze problem before, and now they say the farmers are the ones responsible,” Remang said.


“This is false. Indigenous peoples are not the cause of the haze in the republic, and we can’t let them become the scapegoat for it.”

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