Battling Blaze with Fins: An Innovative Way SE Asia Fights Fires

Battling Blaze with Fins: An Innovative Way SE Asia Fights Wildfires

September 22, 2023

The global challenges posed by climate change can only be solved if actions starts locally. Across Southeast Asia, several communities are trying to do their part. One such effort is led by the Alam Siak Lestari (ASL), a sustainability-led initiative based in the Siak regency that tries to keep the peatlands wet to prevent wildfires.

As of June 2023, the Singapore government has already made plans for the incoming transboundary haze from Indonesia. The seasonal environmental issue is feared to be exacerbated by the El Nino phenomenon and with record-breaking heat across the world. Included in those plans are the stockpiling and, if necessary, distribution of N95 masks and the creation of “safe spaces” for vulnerable groups. These safe spaces, dubbed “haze sanctuaries,” will be available for the public as they are located in community centers, nursing homes, or classrooms.

For those in Indonesia, there is an increasing worry that there will be a repeat of massive forest fires in the region. In 2015, Musramad, also known as Gun, was an eyewitness to the events, as his home in Siak regency (approx. 205 km from Singapore & Johor Bahru) became one of the centers of the forest fires.

Gun recounted the impact of the fires, which devoured more than 2.6 million hectares of forests and peatlands, dealing Indonesia an estimated $16 billion economic blow. Nearly half a million residents suffered from five major illnesses because the haze infiltrated indoor spaces. Schools and transportation in and out of Siak were also affected, including the vital river traffic, which served as the lifeline for the residents, and came to a standstill. The devastating fires have also led to biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions, impacting our global environment.

Part of the reason why the fire is so devastating is because it burned on peatland, a delicate and fragile ecosystem that is often subjected to land clearing activities with slash-and-burn methods. Once burned, the fire is hard to extinguish because it happened below the ground. Therefore, one of the keys to preventing forest fire is to ensure that the peatland ecosystem is guarded. Today, Gun and his organization, Alam Siak Lestari, alongside other organizations, are trying to implement a grassroots approach to protect the peatland to prevent forest fires and transboundary haze from happening again.

Peat Swamp Fish: Guardians of Peatlands

Alam Siak Lestari (ASL), a sustainability-led initiative based in Siak regency, where 57.44% of the land consists of peatlands, is taking a unique approach to keep the peatlands wet and prevent forest and peatland fires by cultivating snakehead murrel fish (Channa striata). The species, which is a native from peatland, is locally known as Ikan Gabus in Indonesia, Haruan in Malaysia, Pla chon in Thailand, and Dalag in the Philippines. The fish is chosen after the Alam Siak Lestari team immersed themselves in the Malay culture and learned its use as a supplement in postpartum recovery due to its exceptionally high albumin levels.

Gun who is now the CEO and founder of Alam Siak Lestari, stated that

The peatland fires in Siak were a significant contributor to the hazardous haze in 2015. To address this issue, the government has implemented stricter policies for peatland protection. However, on the other hand, local communities living near peatlands have been seeking alternative, peat-friendly sources of income. It’s from this quest that a business model has emerged, one that not only benefits the community but also preserves the environment.

The program, aptly named Healthy Ecosystem Alternative Livelihood (HEAL) Fisheries, supports the development and marketing of products not only for snakehead fish but also other native species like Toman and Lompong. Under this initiative, locally cultivated snakehead fish are purchased by ASL and processed into value-added products, including Albumin, augmenting community incomes. Additionally, through Village-Owned Enterprises (BUMDES), community members hold shares providing them with dividends from annual company profits. This comprehensive approach not only enhances the community’s economic well-being but also nurtures a sense of ownership and ensures long-term sustainability in their partnership with ASL.

Sukardi, a dedicated snakehead fish farmer, has been actively involved in the program since its inception. Despite facing initial challenges, he has witnessed remarkable benefits over time. “Initially we were unfamiliar with this type of farming, we found it challenging to start, and unaware of the fish’s potential. However, with ASL’s consistent support and guidance, we now see tangible results, both economically and in terms of health and environmental impact.”

In their climate mitigation efforts, ASL with their HEAL programs have successfully safeguarded
76,744 hectares of peatland. ASL also aims to expand its impact by involving 10 fire-prone villages in their ecosystem by 2027, focusing on both raw material provision and peatland restoration. Within the next five years, they plan to introduce 20 peat-friendly products to the Asian market and engage around 500 local youths in this initiative, furthering their commitment to mitigating climate change.

Collaborative Efforts to Safeguard Peatlands in Siak Regency

While ASL is focusing on changing the behavior of the local community, there is still a need to educate the stakeholders on the importance in safeguarding the peatland, including the government and private companies that have plantations in the surrounding areas.

Perkumpulan Elang (Elang Association), a community-driven conservation NGO, focuses their approach on the interconnectedness of economic, social, cultural, and environmental aspects. The organization actively engages in educational programs and awareness campaigns aimed at the local population. Janes Sinaga, Director of Perkumpulan Elang emphasizes a holistic approach to peatland conservation, aiming to create economic value through carbon trading and gain support from various stakeholders. Their collaborative efforts have garnered broad support and commitments announced at COP27, now in the process of implementation, promise a substantial impact on Indonesia’s peatland conservation.

In response to ecological initiatives aimed at harnessing the potential of peatlands, the local government has taken steps to support these efforts. One such initiative is the Transfer Anggaran Kabupaten Berbasis Ekologi (TAKE) or Ecological Fiscal Transfer program. This program is designed to provide fiscal incentives to village governments in Siak Regency that excel in addressing regional environmental issues. The goal is to accelerate the implementation of the Siak Hijau policy by fostering collaboration between villages and rewarding both government and community achievements. This initiative aligns closely with environmental economic regulations and the Siak Green Regency’s roadmap action plan.

Alam Siak Lestari together with Perkumpulan Elang, and the Siak Regency government have provided examples of how public awareness, local wisdom, policy enforcement and community empowerment are the key to progress and solve regional and even global issues. While the world moves to adapt to the challenging climate crisis; mitigation efforts also need to be taken into consideration, especially one that empower grassroot communities, as they may be the one that gets most impacted by the climate crisis.

Ed.  Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash.


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