Indonesian police spray water on a peatland fire in Kampar, Riau province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, September 20, 2015.
Regina Safri (Antara Foto) / Reuters

On October 25, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, had to cut his official visit to the United States short. Indonesia was burning. Every year, farmers in Indonesia purposely light their land on fire to quickly clear it for new crops. This technique, called slash and burn, is used around the world. But this year, an extra-long dry season coupled with a tropical storm left the country burning for over two months. Indonesia—and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia—is now covered in a toxic brown haze. Throughout the region, schools, airports, and other public services have had to shut down because of smog, and half a million cases of respiratory illness have been reported.

According to the Global Fire Emissions Database, on many days in September and October the CO2 emissions from the fires in Indonesia exceeded the daily average emitted by the United States. In fact, in those two months alone, the fires released more CO2 than what Germany emits in a year.

Slash and burn is popular in Indonesia because it is an easy way to clear large tracts of land and it readies the soil for palm, from which palm oil is made. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of the substance, which is used in cosmetics and biofuels. Indonesia’s palm oil output, two-thirds of which is exported, has increased nearly 50 percent since 2008. Even though slash and burn is technically illegal in Indonesia, the government has not regularly enforced the rules—or much monitored the agricultural sector. Right now, it is not even clear who started the fires: many of the private palm oil companies, which are owned by foreign conglomerates, claim that they do not use slash and burn.

Officers from the local Disaster Management Agency attempt to extinguish a fire in South Sumatra, Indonesia, September 17, 2015.
Nova Wahyudi (Antara Foto) / Reuters

What is clear is that small local farmers, displaced by these large private companies, do turn to illegal deforestation to maintain their livelihoods. In Indonesia, 75 percent of the country’s 472 million acres of land is classified as State Forest Land. Around 30 percent of this land does not contain trees, making it especially attractive to small farmers.

One solution to this problem is providing small-scale farmers legal means to farm on State Forest Land. In fact, working and living outside the law is unnecessary since Indonesian forests can be accessed and managed through a variety of legal channels, such as the national forest registry, community plantation forests, or village forest plans. Many farming communities are unaware of these opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of farmers could benefit from legal access to these lands, including families that have illegally lived on them, sometimes for generations.

Students walk along a street as they are released from school to return home earlier due to the haze in Jambi, Indonesia's Jambi province, September 29, 2015.
Wahdi Setiawan (Antara Foto) / Reuters

Even so, the process to obtain recognition and protection of rights can be daunting. A community must map the forest land it wishes to manage, create a community organization, learn and understand the various forestry programs, and, finally, submit a proposal to the Ministry of Forestry. The entire process can take up to four years.

A legal right to manage forest land, although necessary to minimize deforestation, is not sufficient in and of itself to protect the land. Indonesian small farm communities also require training in sustainable forestry and farming techniques to support themselves and responsibly participate in the global palm oil market. Sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation, and agro-forestry all help increase output and negate the need for slash and burn. For example, planting more than one crop ensures that the soil is not leached of nutrients and can be used without being burned. Rainfall prediction studies and mapping help farmers plant at the best times and reap two crops a year where they might have only had one in the past. Use of livestock manure and urine for fertilizers and insecticides can help farmers do their work at a far lower cost to themselves and to the environment.

Local and international aid groups have a large role to play here as well. For instance, our group, World Neighbors, with the support of the Ford Foundation, works with local partners to ensure that farmers obtain land rights. We have helped 16,000 Indonesian farmers obtain the legal right to cultivate state forest lands. Over 37,000 acres have been planted with rice, nuts, coffee, and a variety of fruits and vegetables using low-cost sustainable techniques including those described above. Ours is a relatively small project, employing minimal resources and personnel. But it and other scalable projects like it demonstrate the potential for these rights-based and educational efforts to enable farm communities to move away from slash-and-burn farming.

A firefighter from the local disaster management agency tries to extinguish a peatland fire in a palm oil plantation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, September 26, 2015.
FB Anggoro (Antara Foto) / Reuters

Through adequate technical assistance and appropriate technology transfer, many more local Indonesian communities can use responsible techniques to farm their land. In addition, these farmers can and are working for themselves, rather than for the conglomerates that control the palm oil plantations. The communities’ stake in these forest lands is legal and direct, which provides them with strong incentives to protect rather than slash and burn the land. For instance, none of the farmers who received assistance through our program engages in slash and burn. Scaling a program like ours—from tens of thousands of acres to millions—would dramatically lower the amount of vegetation and trees subject to slash and burn, and as a result reduce the practice’s terrible environmental impact.

Indonesia’s fire crisis has brought unwanted attention to Indonesia and its agricultural system. There is a straightforward solution to this crisis: giving communities a direct stake in the land that they live on through legal protections and sustainable farming practices. It is the best way to increase rural incomes and prevent massive deforestation. What is happening in Indonesia may be a regional crisis, but at the end of the day it affects everyone on the planet.

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  • KATE SCHECTER is President and CEO of World Neighbors, a development organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma City.  
  • EDD WRIGHT is World Neighbors Regional Director for Southeast Asia.
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