Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Firefighting in action by Chuck Baclagon
An update from Richi about fighting the forest fires that raged through Indonesia recently

An update from Richi about fighting the forest fires that raged through Indonesia recently

From Making Waves

My name is Richi, and I work for Greenpeace in Indonesia doing action logistics and volunteer coordination. Recently, I coordinated the work that we did with community firefighting efforts in Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia from 31 July – 6 August 2009.

Now, I’m back in the village of Kuala Cinaku, with my feet firmly planted in it’s yellow soil after over two-years. Not much has changed in this small village, but this time I’m fighting to breathe through the thick pungent smoke from the forest fires that annually blight the province of Riau on Sumatra’s east coast, opposite Singapore. I am here to check firefighting equipment and prepare teams for the peatland forest fires that are once again burning out of control here.

I first came here at the end of 2007, as part of Greenpeace’s Forest Defender’s Camp (FDC) ahead of the Bali climate talks, to highlight the ongoing destruction of Indonesia’s forests for palm oil, the huge impacts on the global climate, and the peoples and rich diversity that depend on these majestic forests.

Greenpeace local staff and volunteers helped the local community build the Forest Defender’s camp in 40C+ degree heat, during the fasting month of Ramadan. The community joined efforts to dam canals that were draining peatlands and we worked together to conduct biodiversity audits of forest areas imminently threatened with conversion to palm oil. Together, we took part in joint forest firefighting exercises, using equipment provided by Greenpeace, in preparation for the annual forest fires that plague the intensively planted provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Indonesia’s rampant deforestation blights communities who depend on the forests. Once palm oil and pulp and paper companies are granted clearing permits, a lot of which are illegal, by local and national government, communities begin to lose their land and their livelihoods.

The first thing I do when I arrive is check the equipment we left here last time. Unfortunately, I find that it hasn’t been looked after, the expensive water pump needs urgent maintenance and some of our hoses have been attacked by rats, which are the size of cats here!

After fixing the equipment, I begin to assemble the firefighting team. I contact the community members who attended the 2007 forest fire training, add some new team members from a village near Rengat, and the 15 strong-team is completed by volunteers and friends from Jakarta and Riau provincial capital Pekanbaru.

After conducting several field surveys, and using satellite data, we finally locate a large peatland fire around 40 minutes away from Kuala Cinaku, on a large island in the middle of the Indragiri River, Pulau Gelang. We need 6 pompongs (small river boats) to transport all the equipment and teams to the island. The seat of the fire is still 15 minutes by foot from the riverbank

The firefighting team is fully equipped with safety helmets, goggles, masks and sturdy boots. We split into teams, fix the 300 metre-long hose to the high pressure water pump and start it up. After assessing the size of the fire, and the staff, equipment and resources at our disposal, we commit to a punishing firefighting schedule – 09.00 – 17.00 hrs for seven days.

We face many challenges. The area that is burning is deep peatland near a palm oil plantation with much dry bush. It’s very difficult to fight fire on peatland because of the large amount of dry vegetation. The long dry season and strong wind also makes it difficult to fight the fires. We need to spray water underground because peatland fires often burn under the surface as well and we have to take care not to be trapped by the unpredictability of these fires. The other condition making firefighting difficult is the water supply as the canals and river are far away. We borrow a 500-metre hose from the nearby Teso Nilo Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. Added to this, we rarely see the flames during daylight, only thick smoke. The fires are largely only visible at night as we lay exhausted in our makeshift camp.

After five days of hard fire fighting in Pulau Gelang, we succeed in extinguishing fires in around 10 hectares. It’s time to move on to Desa Sukajadi, 40 minutes from Pulau Gelang after hearing from the village chief that his village was being threatened by fires.

We arrive at Desa Sukajadi at 20.00 hrs and immediately set to work on the fire. It’s far from the nearest water supply, so we again use the 500-metre hose to fight the fires until we are sure that the village is safe. We finally collapse exhausted at around 3.00 hrs.

On 6 August, having succeeded in saving a total of 25 hectares of forest and the village of Desa Sukajadi, we are done fighting fires.

This may not sound like much, but it was the best we could do given our resource and time limitations. While we were fighting these fires on the ground with the local communities, the Indonesian Government was conducting joint firefighting workshops in Pekanbaru with US and regional military units and doing nothing to help communities under attack from another wave of forest fires.
We need the Indonesian government to stop these fires before they even start burning in the first place. Using fire to clear land is illegal under Indonesian law, with many forest fires being deliberately set by company workers in preparation for palm or pulp and paper plantations. There is very little enforcement of the law and many companies ridiculously blame local communities.

Bravo firefighting team and everybody who supported us….….

Want to know more?

Indonesian Rainforest Burns While Government Silent in Climate Talks

Greenpeace Urge KPK to investigate Forestry Ministry. Again!

60,000 Indonesian ‘Forest Defenders’ petition President SBY to protect the forests

Protecting Riau’s peatland forests will protect livelihoods and food security of its people


1 Comment so far
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hello Richi, i’ve just read your blog. i knew it was ashamed about this country, the local government has no concern about the people and the neighbourhood. i was trying to give information about the forest destruction to rengat people especially the youth through radio programme. unfortunately most of them didn’t know about this, without shock expression it means theirs no concern about what happening to their forest. im totally support for the Greenpeace action in Riau. I welcome you back to Riau

Comment by emelda sury

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