By Nindy

Bangsal Village is a community of farmers, breeders, and fishermen in the Ogan Komering Ilir district, which is still suffering from the effects of the 2015 peatland fires. South Sumatrans from SAWA visit the village to learn more about local wildlife and education.

Imagine if the morning sunlight no longer came through your bedroom window. Instead, there was only this tight feeling in your chest, sore eyes, and a view covered with dark smog outside. It is definitely not the romantic haze of a TV drama. It is real smog, and this is not hypothetical. Do you still remember the massive forest fire in 2015?

Yes, the fire is over. Kids nowadays may say “Just move on!” But moving on from environmental destruction is not so easy. The impacts of this fire live on. So, what should we do?

The 2015 fire burned around 2.1 million ha of forest, and 35% of that (around 660 ha) was peatland. The Indonesian National Disaster and Mitigation Agency (BNBP) recorded 503,874 people who suffered from acute respiratory infections (ISPA) in six provinces between 1 July and 23 October 2015. Jambi province had the largest number of acute respiratory infection patients with 129,229 people, followed by South Sumatra with 101,333 people, South Kalimantan with 97,430 people, Riau with 80,263 people, Central Kalimantan with 52,142 people, and West Kalimantan with 43,477. Across all six provinces, 19 people died due to the fire.

Indonesia likewise suffered financial losses of 221 trillion rupiah (US$16 million). In addition, peatland restorations cost 12 million rupiah  ($870) per hectare over five years. In an interview with Koran Jakarta, pedologist Dr. Azwar Maas explained: “Once the peat is cleared, it cannot return to its original state unless it is flooded again, replanted with wet-adaptive plants, or let go in natural succession, which could take thousands of years. Therefore, we can only extend utilization and reduce depletion in the peat layer.”

Many questions remain: Is the fire likely to occur again? Who can resolve this issue? How do we stop the fire from recurring? In order to answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of peatlands, so as not to repeat mistakes that could cause fires.  

What is peatland and how important is it?

Peat is a type of soil that is formed by the accumulation of half-rotten plants that contain rich organic materials. According to WRI Indonesia, Indonesia is home to the largest tropical peatland area in the world. Tropical peatland is the richest type due to its carbon content. Making up 3% of total land in the world,  it can store up to 75% of the carbon in the atmosphere.

Firefighting in peatlands is extremely difficult, as it takes 500 tons of water per hectare to put out a fire. This explains why it’s so challenging to extinguish peatland fires, especially in a country with hundreds of hectares of peatland!

As a local representative from South Sumatra, it is my duty to contribute to finding a solution to this problem. So, I traveled to Bangsal Village to learn firsthand about peatland in this region and how the 2015 fire impacted the surrounding community.

A challenging yet fun journey

On Saturday, November 4, 2017, I had the chance to visit Bangsal Village with nine fellow South Sumatrans from Indonesian Forum for the Environment Friends (Sahabat WALHI). This village is in a Hydrological Peat Unit (KHG), a peat ecosystem set between two bodies of water.

It took us three hours from Palembang to reach Bangsal Village, traveling 75 km/hour by motorcycle. The journey was quite challenging, because the unpaved road was damaged and rocky. The motorcycles we rode almost lost balance several times on the slippery road.

Before reaching Bangsal Village, we passed several villages, including Pulau Layang, Tanjung Aur, Lebung Ketepeng, Tapus, and Kuro. In Bangsal Village, we stopped at a green stilt house with a fish pond that was partitioned into four sections beneath. Behind it, there was a brownish-black river view and then a vast expanse of grass and land.  

When we arrived, we did not rest right away. We were welcomed by about 20 teenagers playing tambourines and other small percussion instruments while singing and saying sholawat (Islamic prayers). This warm welcome was enough to re-energize us. After a short conversation, we tidied up our equipment and continued our activities. A few group members prepared lunch and others went fishing. Meanwhile, two others and I joined the teenagers, who had finished their musical rehearsal and were heading toward the riverbanks.

About 10 meters away, there was a black pickup truck. The teenagers collected water hyacinths and placed them in the truck for transport. The weather was so hot that their caping (woven conical hat) could not handle it. The teens threw themselves into the river to cool off after cleaning the riverbanks of water hyacinths.    

Enjoying the water buffalo milk and gulo puan

Bangsal Village spans 320 hectares and is inhabited by 200 families. It’s in the Pampangan sub-district of the Ogan Komering Ilir district, South Sumatra. Villagers’ livelihoods include farming, gardening, and fishing.

Our group stayed overnight at the village chief’s house, so we could resume our activities the following day. Besides having a beautiful view, this village is also home to unique wildlife, such as a population of water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis carabauesis), popularly known as the Pampangan buffalo. This animal has black skin and hair, a large head, long ears, and short horns that curve backwards. The water buffalo can dive while eating, and is one of seven species of endemic Indonesian buffalo traditionally bred by being released in the field in the mornings and herded back in the afternoons.

The Bangsal Village community can utilize the water buffalo in its attempt to become a swamp-based economy and agroecology village. By herding the water buffalo, the community can benefit from its livestock products, such as meat and milk, which can be processed into traditional dishes like gulo puan and sagon puan, as well as butter, yogurt, and oil.

Unfortunately, water buffalo products are not popular among the people of South Sumatra. Besides, the raw material required is getting harder to find, so water buffalo dairy farmers must share it with other groups. Another emerging issue is the rise in water buffalo mortality due to the decrease in grazeable land after the 2015 forest fire. As a result, water buffalo farmers are unable to process milk everyday; they can only process milk by pre-order.  

Other buffalo milk products such as gulo puan are also very interesting. Gulo puan has a colour like brown sugar, with a strong milk aroma and savory taste; it can be enjoyed immediately or be stored and used as jam. Gulo puan is sold for 80 thousand rupiah ($5.80) per kilogram.

Lessons learned from farmer school

The Bangsal Village community’s potential lies not only in its beautiful landscape and the condition of its flora and fauna, but also in the value they place on education. They’ve shown this through the establishment of a Madrasah Tsanawiyah (MT) school, Ibnul Fallaah Foundation, which local farmers founded to improve their children’s education.   

In a five-square-meter room there were two desks and a file cabinet. Once and awhile, children were called over the loudspeakers to come to the room. Two meters across from the desk, there was a cupboard showcasing the Madrasah students’ trophies and awards. In this room, I had the chance to talk to one of the founders of Ibnul Fallaah, Ms. Serli Emilda.  

This school was established on 1 July 2008 with vision of: “Educating the children of the nation and instilling them with noble morals”. Unlike most other schools, Ibnul Fallaah gives students Friday off and offers an integrated farming program on Saturdays and Sundays. This school has quite modest facilities: two dormitories for female and male students, respectively, and a few study rooms.  

In addition to academic and religious training, students are taught to respect the natural environment. Once every two weeks, the children help to collect household garbage, which the villagers have put in round tin barrels in their homes. They also reuse plastic waste to create pots to grow plants.

In our conversation, I asked Ms. Serli about the impact of the 2015 forest fire on them. Although the burn area was far away from Bangsal Village, the school was closed during the fire. Ms. Serli explained that lack of information about the benefits of peatland led many local communities to burn the land, not knowing the impact of their actions. She added that fire could cause water buffalo populations to die, usable land to diminish, and the economic situation of water buffalo farmers to worsen.

We often hear “prevention is better than cure” with reference to disease. This wisdom also applies to preserving nature. It would be better to prevent forest fires from happening in the first place than to try to restore forests after a fire. Fire damage is costly, both materially and psychologically.

The journey to Bangsal Village made me realize that environmental stewardship education must be introduced from an early age. This will instill younger generations and communities with empathy toward their environment. In this advanced, fast-paced era, technology must be utilized to educate our population about the importance of taking care of nature. The Pantau Gambut site is one source of such information about peatland. The site also provides a platform to share stories and monitor the government’s progress in restoring the peatland.

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