The Forest Fire Response Potential of Social Forestry

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.


The image of choking columns of smoke rising out of tropical rainforest comes too easily to mind after 2019’s fierce reminder of the reality of longer and more intense forest fire seasons. This image can not only hint at the hectares of forest livelihoods and habitats destroyed but also shockingly remind us of the fundamental connection between people, nature, and climate that may in turn lead us to the solution.


“Social forestry” or “community-based forest management”, which refers to enabling local communities to sustainably manage forests for both social and environmental outcomes, has gained prominence with the realisation of improvements to forest quality and community welfare, so much so that Indonesia’s government committed 12.7 million hectares of forest land to communities through social forestry schemes that have been rolled out across the country. The focus of social forestry on community governance is central to the challenge of forest fire management because fires are generally intentionally started to clear land for agriculture. Social forestry initiatives seek to formalise community forest stewardship by securing land tenure and facilitating sustainable use of forest products that generate income for local communities. Disaster response could be further integrated into the social forestry system by supporting local communities to more effectively prevent and manage forest fires on a local scale.


Indonesia’s fires are largely due to both legal and illegal land clearing by way of “slash and burn”, which is the cheapest and most common way to clear forested land for agricultural use, usually for palm oil or pulp plantations. Indonesia’s 2019 fires pumped into the atmosphere almost double the amount of carbon dioxide from the Amazonian wildfires raging at the same time. This is attributed to the thick carbon-rich peat sitting up to 18 metres on the forest floor. Such layers of organic material making up what is called peatland accumulate over thousands of years and hold 30 to 40 percent of global carbon despite covering only 3 percent of the world’s land area. Indonesia is home to some of the world’s largest peatland areas, which underscores the global importance of successful forest and fire management. As the demand for land has increased, plantation owners have moved to the less desirable peatland swamp rainforests, preparing them for agriculture by draining the peatland and burning the forest – a combination that creates inflammatory conditions for forest fires. Carbon is emitted as the drained peatlands dry out, which can continue for hundreds of years. The role of land conversion and agriculture in deforestation and forest degradation demonstrates the importance of centralising livelihoods in any long-term forest management strategy as a core tenet of social forestry. By assisting communities to secure tenure of their forests, social forestry initiatives would clarify forest boundaries and enable the benefits of sustainable management to flow to the communities responsible.


The land tenure and local management frameworks used by social forestry initiatives also contribute substantially to forest fire prevention and management strategies. Centralising local leaders and communities in forest fire disaster response aligns with forest stewardship practices and enables direct and immediate intervention if their livelihoods or villages are in danger. Poor communication within responsible institutions and high fire severity response thresholds have decreased the effectiveness of existing fire control policies. For example, the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (National Agency for Disaster Management) can only coordinate relevant institutional responses after a bushfire has been declared a disaster, which leaves a critical gap for low-scale fires. Providing training and fire prevention equipment to communities can enable critical rapid first response to forest fires before they are declared disasters. This capability would build upon the benefits from greater overall forest health and peatland restoration efforts that are also led by community knowledge and stewardship. For instance, the establishment of community fire prevention organisations has led to the significant reduction of forest fires in Lampung, a Sumatra province, through community forest management that results in land rehabilitation and generation of household incomes from coffee agroforestry in Sumatra and Kalimantan.


2021 is the “super year” for climate, nature, and people as the conference of the parties for both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change coincide. Long-term and systems-based adaptation to increased natural disaster threats must be designed with recognition of the livelihood-ecosystem symbiosis. The COVID-19 recovery provides an unprecedented opportunity to re-think “green” development to include nature-based solutions, such as social forestry, which builds on existing regulatory frameworks to improve effectiveness and maximise impact. Facilitating local and traditional leaders to respond effectively to small-scale fire events would build upon the forest fire prevention benefits of healthier forest ecosystems, thereby decreasing long-term forest fire occurrence and destruction.


This article was written by Marina Hough, edited by Stephanie Plumb, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse. The AASYP Horizons Blog empathises and is in solidarity with the citizens of Myanmar.


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