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A utopia of clean air and wet peat amid Sumatra’s forest fire ‘hell’

Sadikin

Sadikin received the Kalpataru pioneer award from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry for his efforts to prevent and control forest fires. Image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Sadikin, a resident of Indonesia’s Riau province, converted his parents’ abandoned vegetable garden into an arboretum of peat-friendly tree species.
  • In 2020, he won an award for his dedication to local firefighting efforts, including his innovation to dig shallow “hydrant” wells to speed up firefighting in peatlands.
  • Sadikin and his fellow villagers have also adapted their pineapple cultivation system to include firebreaks, and use their crop to weave containers that can replace plastic bags.

BENGKALIS, Indonesia — On the east coast of the island of Sumatra lies a grove of timber, fruit and native trees known as the Marsawa Peat Arboretum. This shady grove, spread across 1.1 hectares (2.7 acres), is a labor of love for local land and air — one that originated in a place of loss.

Sadikin, who maintains this tract of towering trees and birdsong, conceived of the initiative after losing his son to smoke exposure during one of the many forest fires that rage almost every year in Sumatra’s Riau province.

According to Global Forest Watch, Riau — a province nearly the size of the U.S. state of Maine and three times larger than Belgium — lost half its tree cover between 2001 and 2021. 2005 was Riau’s worst fire year on record: 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) of forest burned, an area more than one and a half times the size of London.

So far, 2022 has been a typical fire year for the province, with the head of the province’s disaster agency recently announcing that fires were currently burning over 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) and some districts declaring an emergency alert status.

Perennial smoke and air pollution convinced Sadikin to convert his parents’ derelict vegetable garden into an orchard that eventually became the Marsawa arboretum. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Perennial smoke and air pollution convinced Sadikin to convert his parents’ derelict vegetable garden into an orchard that eventually became the Marsawa arboretum. He planted cashew, rubber, banana and other fruit trees. He added a variety of native rainforest trees valued for their timber, including geronggang (Cratoxylum arborescens), bintangor (Calophyllum pulcherrimum), kelat tikus (Syzygium and Eugenia spp.), kelat merah (Syzygium filiforme) and mahang (Macaranga pruinosa); and an array of other native tree species valued for medicine, including timah-timah (Leucaena leucocephala), gelam (Melaleuca cajuputi, used to make aromatic medicinal oils) and cempedak (Artocarpus integer, a Bornean variety of jackfruit). In the understory, seven varieties of Indigenous pitcher plant thrive.

“I was called to rehabilitate the air,” Sadikin says. “Perhaps it is an impossible mission, but let me attempt to cultivate this patch of land, help it grow into a forest. Where there is forest, there is water.”

Sadikin’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Pertamina, the Indonesian state-owned oil company, contributed funding to help develop the grove as an environmental education and tourism enterprise, replete with resting huts, a snack shack, toilets, cobblestone paths and signs, and even a zip line. In the process, it’s become a peat forest wonderland for local students to visit and learn about Riau’s dominant forest form. The site is also used by local, national and foreign academics to measure carbon sequestration, peat, and the economics of small-scale agroforestry.

“The arboretum is an excellent example of what good peat looks like,” said Didy Wurjanto, head of public relations for the national Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM).

An endemic pitcher plant thrives in the understory of the Marsawa arboretum. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Mini wells to stop peat fires

In 2020, Sadikin received the Kalpataru pioneer award from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry for his efforts to prevent and control forest fires. A member of the volunteer fire brigade for the ward of Sungai Pakning in Riau’s Bengkalis district, Sadikin has worked to divert canals to quash peat fires. He also innovated the firefighting technique of digging shallow “hydrant” wells on peat.

“In 2015, our area was called the ‘village of hell’ because of forest and land fires,” Sadikin says. That year, fires in Sumatra and on the Indonesian portion of Borneo caused haze that lasted for four months, spreading to the neighboring countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, closing schools and killing people closer to the fire sources. Sadikin says multiple fires started near his village, raging for months. Spread across the dry landscape, these fires would take weeks to extinguish due to limited firefighting equipment. Wells would be dug repeatedly because water in the makeshift pits would dry up quickly. Canals had to be diverted to ensure the peat stayed wet and was therefore not flammable.

Sadikin received training on how to use pipes and pumps to make portable hydrant wells. Trainers had said the wells needed to be 70-80 meters (230-262 feet) deep, but Sadikin figured out that shallower wells of 4-7 m (13-23 ft) could be used in peatlands where water is available closer to the surface. Given this innovation, the volunteer fire brigade could react faster to forest fires and was able to more quickly shift positions. As a result, since 2016, Sungai Pakning has been free of severe fires most years. Sadikin also taught fire brigades in the neighboring areas of Siak Kecil and Bandar Laksamana how to use these super shallow peat hydrant wells.

Inside the Marsawa Peat Arboretum. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Pineapple leaves instead of plastic

Rahmad Hidayat, head of Pertamina’s local Sungai Pakning corporate social responsibility division, says Sadikin is a local hero, a hard worker, and a driving force for the local sustainability movement.

Sadikin and others from his village have replanted 10 hectares (25 acres) of burnt or partially burnt land as pineapple plantations. They used a widely spaced legowo planting system to seed their crop so it could withstand the area’s frequent fires. Using this method, pineapples are planted in rows of four with 70-80 centimeters (28-31 inches) between each plant. Each set of four rows is separated by 140-160 cm (55-63 in) of bare ground that serves as a firebreak in case of fire. With this method, “burning bush cannot cross into another area,” Sadikin says. The farmers plan to expand their plantation by 6 hectares (15 acres) soon.

In addition to selling the fruit from their pineapple garden, villagers use the fibrous leaves of the plant to weave bags and baskets that serve as planters for seedlings and packaging for the pineapple jam, candy and chips that they sell at the arboretum snack shack. Pertamina also used this pineapple-leaf packaging to distribute fresh meat during last year’s Eid al-Adha celebration, forgoing plastic packaging altogether.

Villagers use the fibrous leaves of the plant to weave bags and baskets that serve as planters for seedlings and for packaging. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Banner image: Sadikin received the Kalpataru pioneer award from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry for his efforts to prevent and control forest fires. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

A version of this story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on June 27, 2022.