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In War on Haze, Indonesia Has New Ally: Tribespeople


FILE - A woman disembarks from a boat with the Ampera Bridge shrouded in haze from wildfires in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Sept. 29, 2015.

Indonesia is recruiting tribespeople to help fight outbreaks of haze with a government deal designed to tap into traditional ways of containing forest fires.

The region suffers every dry season from a haze caused by smoldering fires, often set deliberately to clear land for pulp and paper and palm oil plantations on Sumatra and Borneo islands.

Most of the fires are on peat land, which are highly inflammable and often cause fires to spread beyond their intended areas, sending smoke to neighbors Singapore and Malaysia.

FILE - Workers spray water to contain a wildfire in peatland in Pedamaran, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Oct. 27, 2015.
FILE - Workers spray water to contain a wildfire in peatland in Pedamaran, South Sumatra, Indonesia, Oct. 27, 2015.

Tap local knowledge

For the first time, the Peatlands Restoration Agency, set up by President Joko Widodo in 2016 to fight the fires, has struck a deal with indigenous groups in a bid to tap their traditional knowledge in managing lands and fires.

"We realize indigenous groups are already practicing good peatland management, using their local wisdom," the agency's deputy head Myrna Safitri said.

For instance, a long-held tradition by the Dayak tribe on Borneo island dictates they cannot leave a place that has been set on fire until the fire stops.

Fires are often started in the dry season by farmers to clear their land quickly and cheaply to plant new harvests.

Spread best practices

In other places, some tribes have developed new ways to avoid burning the land when they are preparing for the new planting season, according to the official.

"We are really impressed. We hope with our recognition of the indigenous people, that kind of knowledge-sharing can be expanded to other places," Safitri said.

Under an agreement with the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago signed last week, the agency will promote such practices and hope the tribespeople can inspire others.

The alliance is the umbrella group that represents some 50 million indigenous people in Indonesia.

"We hope it would be one of the effective ways to control the fires at the grassroots level," Safitri said.

Neighbors unhappy with haze

Indonesia has been criticized by neighbors and green groups for failing to end the annual fires.

In 2015, dry weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon saw one of the worst outbreaks of haze in years, with smoke blanketing neighboring Singapore and Malaysia for weeks and drifting as far north as the Thai capital Bangkok.

The fires cost Indonesia $16 billion that year and left more than 500,000 Indonesians suffering from respiratory ailments.

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