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Setiono Ono pauses his morning wildfire patrol near the northeastern coast of Sumatra island at a small timber dam between a logged area and an oil palm plantation. 

Water the colour of charcoal is leaking out from the dam along a narrow canal cut to drain the surrounding peatland.   

The dam, built by the local community here in the Siak regency of Riau province, is one of thousands of canal barriers constructed in recent years to protect Indonesia's peatlands, seen as critical in the fight against climate change. 

“We need to fix this - the canal is very important,” said fire patrol leader Setiono, 40, before heading into the patchy forest with two other volunteers.

Setiono Ono stands with equipment to help extinguish small fires at the office of the Rawa Mekar Jaya community fire organisation on September 1, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Peat accounts for about 3% of the world’s land surface, but globally, peatlands store more carbon than all other terrestrial vegetation combined, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Vegetation in waterlogged marshes does not break down completely, so carbon sequestered from the atmosphere by plants compacts into a dense peat layer.

Over thousands of years, this process has created an underground vault of carbon - 10 metres (33 ft) deep in places - which fuels global warming when released into the atmosphere, mainly through burning.

Plant matter decays on a river in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, on September 8, 2020. After thousands of years the process creates a carbon-rich peat layer about 10 metres deep in places. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Peatlands account for almost 6% of annual human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, according to the IUCN.

Protecting and re-wetting the world's peatlands is a “greatly underestimated” strategy that is needed to help limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, an internationally agreed goal, said a new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. 

'I used to destroy nature'

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Burnt trees are seen in a peatland area near Teluk Meranti village in Pelalawan, in Indonesia's Riau province November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Indonesia is home to more than a third of the world’s tropical peat, giving the nation of about 270 million a key role in safeguarding the carbon-rich ecosystem.

But in recent decades, its peatlands have experienced rapid conversion into valuable oil palm and acacia plantations to meet rising global consumer demand for palm oil, pulp and paper.

That has helped lift small farmers out of poverty but brought urgent environmental and public health risks.

Plantation trees fare poorly in drenched soil, so companies have constructed thousands of kilometres of canals to drain water from planting areas. 

But dissecting the landscape with these canals has dried it out and increased peatland fires, which smoulder underground for long periods and can often be doused only by heavy rain.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Indonesian police spray water on a peatland fire in Kampar, Riau province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra September 20, 2015 REUTERS/Regina Safri/Antara Foto

The threat is highest when climate patterns - such as the 2015 El Nino and a positive Indian Ocean dipole in 2019 - prolong Sumatra’s main dry season beyond September.   

In 2015, fires burned through some 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Indonesia, an area 20 times larger than Los Angeles.

About a third of the burning took place on peat.

But in Setiono's village, there have been no fires since 2017 - which many here attribute to the former illegal logger.

Setiono Ono (40) patrols a forest area in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, on September 8, 2020. Setiono is head of the Masyarakat Peduli Api, a voluntary firefighting programme, in Rawa Mekar Jaya village. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

After leaving middle school as a teenager, Setiono spent almost a decade of his youth cutting down trees and dodging tigers and the police in the peat forest he now looks after.

He suffered frequent injuries and was hospitalised after a chainsaw slipped and tore through his thigh. Eleven other illegal loggers he knew were jailed.

He guesses he felled more than 100 trees in the forest near the leaking dam.

“For me this is strong motivation,” said Setiono. “The bottom line is that I used to destroy nature.”

Community shield

Five members of the voluntary firefighting unit in Rawa Mekar Jaya village in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, after a morning fire patrol on September 1, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Setiono now heads the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA), or "Fire Care Community", for Rawa Mekar Jaya, a village on the north coast of Siak regency about 150 km (93 miles) west of Singapore.

Community fire initiatives began in Indonesia under pilot schemes during the early 2000s, before the government formally established the MPA program in 2009, according to Johan Kieft at the UN Environment Programme in Indonesia.

In 2013, when a fire burned in Rawa Mekar Jaya, Setiono put up posters around the village asking residents to contact him if they saw a fire. He established a direct line to the government fire brigade to quicken the response time. 

Three members of the Rawa Mekar Jaya community fire group survey degraded land for fire risk on September 8, 2020. Wildfires in Indonesia decreased in the year to end-September compared with a year earlier. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

At the peak of the 2015 haze crisis caused by forest fires, state firefighters worked morning to night as power lines burned and schools closed for a month under a blanket of toxic smoke.

“Everyone had respiratory infections, coughs, breathing difficulties,” Setiono told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A study by Harvard and Columbia universities indicated the 2015 air pollution could have caused 100,000 premature deaths.

Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire at a peatland in Kampar, Riau province, Indonesia, September 24, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken September 24, 2019 Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman/ via REUTERS

Setiono heard about the community fire prevention programme that year and travelled five hours south to Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, for a month’s basic training.

“At first, people did not want to join because they were not getting paid,” he said.

But five years later, Setiono has built one of Riau’s largest village fire brigades, with no dedicated funding.

Donated fire hoses and generators are stacked ready in a garden shed next to his red-brick bungalow.

Other equipment is stored a short drive away at the fire brigade's office, a one-room building surrounded by dark sumps and pineapple plants.

The MPA commissioned its own uniform, and members started keeping bees, using proceeds from honey sales to fund the community organisation.      

Suroso Lilik, 37, draws honey from a bee hive in Rawa Mekar Jaya village in Riau province, Indonesia, on September 7, 2020. The village firefighters have begun keeping bees to help fund the work. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

“I have two children,” said Suroso Lilik, 37, a volunteer who joined the MPA in 2015. “If there is a fire and smoke enters this village, then our children could become asthmatic.”

The MPA convenes every morning to check on the 16,800-hectare area it is responsible for.

The 25 volunteers work in shifts, patrolling the river on a small barge and traversing degraded fields on foot, where wind gusts can spread fire rapidly.

“Our village is ours,” said Setiono. “If we don’t (do this), who else is there?”

Coronavirus risks

Ihsan Abdillah, left, stands with one of 60 professional firefighters at Manggala Agni regional headquarters in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, on September 1, 2020. Raising community capacity to address small fires before they spread has helped Manggala Agni prioritise the most-urgent cases. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

A one-hour drive from Setiono's village, about 60 professional firefighters at the regional Manggala Agni (government fire brigade) headquarters are paid $200 a month for hazardous work on a climate-change frontline.

This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, there was extra pressure to avert large-scale fires, as research linked air pollution to increased vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19.

Despite this, Indonesia’s environment ministry reduced its firefighting budget by about half to bump up coronavirus aid.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A fire burns near trees in a peatland area on the outskirts of Palembang on Indonesia's Sumatra island September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Fire chief Ihsan Abdillah, who has 15 years' experience as a firefighter, said joint patrols in his sector, which the Manggala Agni conducts with the police, military and MPA groups, were cut to five teams this year from 15 in 2019.

But better coordination with communities has helped prevent fires sparking in the first place, he added.

“The Fire Care Community are very important — they are in position in the villages,” he said.

A shorter dry season also helped limit wildfires this year, with official data showing that a significantly smaller area of land burned in the year to end-September compared with 2019.

Ceasing fire

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Farmer Muhammad Rasman, 51, collects ashes from peatland and trees burned next to his farmland for fertiliser at Sebangau district in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, September 19, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

On a narrow lane near the Siak coast, 43-year-old farmer Sahar prepares soil for planting using a garden hoe.

“Many people used to burn land here - including me,” he said.

But outreach by the MPA - combined with the risk of arrest - has helped convince farmers to stop using fire to prepare land for cultivation, he added.

“If anyone burns land, then Setiono and his team will come down here,” said Ahmad Yunus, 44, an elected neighbourhood leader. “Everyone knows him.”

Setiono Ono checks biomass for fire risk at a field of degraded peatland in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, on September 8, 2020. Most land here burned in Rawa Mekar Jaya during the 2015 South-east Asia haze crisis, an environmental disaster one study said could have led to 100,000 premature deaths. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

The MPA also gives lessons on fire risk in local schools, hoping children take the message home to parents.

“In Indonesia what really works is when you empower the local community,” said David Gaveau, a forestry scientist. “I think the MPA is really the way to go.”

But experts say the programme remains under-developed owing to funding constraints.

Many volunteers in Sumatra and Kalimantan struggled last year when faced with overwhelming fires during the long dry season.    

A member of the Rawa Mekar Jaya community fire group surveys land from a small barge near the coast of Riau province, Indonesia, on September 8, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, said the strength of the MPAs is the grassroots support they enjoy.

“The weakness is they don’t have sufficient budget or a clear programme to implement fire prevention and suppression,” he added.

Indonesia has worked to reduce deforestation and wildfires in recent years, including banning development on peat and establishing a new agency to rehabilitate peatlands.

But environmental groups say challenges remain, pointing to gaps in enforcement and unclear zoning, while land continues to burn on some plantation concessions. 

A man commutes back toward Rawa Mekar Jaya village on a river in Siak, Riau province, Indonesia, on September 8, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

“It will be a success story if (other community firefighters) are supported,” said Riko Kurniawan, head of the Riau branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.

The dam Setiono found leaking is one of four barriers built by the local MPA in a bid to rehydrate the peatland. 

Setiono, who lives on community donations, also leads a local mangrove-planting project and has applied for a community forestry licence to sustainably manage the land around the dam.

“We have done a lot of work with him,” said Muslim Rasyid, community coordinator of the Peatland Restoration Agency in Riau. “But not every village has a Setiono.”

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