Greenpeace activists and local volunteers complete the construction of a dam on the peatland canals in the rainforest to halt drainage as part of their “Climate Defenders Camp” at Kampar Peninsula.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi
This is a story of how setting an example and persistently struggling for change can eventually lead to a turnaround by governments and seemingly recalcitrant companies involved in environmental destruction.
It begins in September back in 2009, when I was working in a Jakarta shopping mall. I learned of a dire situation and came to realise I had somewhere more important to be — and that was thousands of kilometers away in the peat forests of Sumatra.
Many of us, especially city dwellers, feel that environmental degradation is a remote issue, both in terms of distance and impact on our daily lives and happiness. But something had pricked my bubble — the news that accelerating destruction of Sumatra’s coastal peatlands meant Indonesia had become the world’s third biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
I felt I had to do something, so I took leave from work and joined activists both local and from abroad and headed to Greenpeace’s Climate Defender Camp in Riau, Sumatra. There, seven hundred thousand hectares of peatland was being destroyed by a pulp and paper company which was digging canals to drain the landscape for a pulpwood plantation.
During those weeks, I spent much of my time side by side with other volunteers building dams to halt the destructive drainage and keep the carbon locked in the deep peat soil. It was no easy task, carrying slabs of timber from the coast inland to dam the canals that were bleeding the peat swamps dry. To tell the truth, it was exhausting – but we knew we had to act to prevent not just greenhouse gas emissions but also the annual peat fires which have blanketed Riau and further afield with choking haze for the past two decades.
Back in 2009, as thanks for our efforts to block canals we were first mocked, then we rapidly found ourselves confronted by the police, after which arrests followed. Eventually our camp was burned down.
But activists in Sumatra, including Greenpeace, never halted their campaign. Eventually their persistence was rewarded – late last year our new president Joko Widodo pulled on rubber boots and waded into Riau’s peatlands to dam a canal at Sungai Tohor with his own hands. President Jokowi said that he understood that peat drainage canals are a major cause of the fires in Riau which do so much damage to local people’s health and livelihoods.
President Joko Widodo Visits Sungai Tohor Community in Riau, Indonesia. Widodo joined members of the Sungai Tohor community in damming a canal draining peatlands on Tebing Tinggi island.
This week, I learned that Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a huge company which back in those days was busy destroying rainforest and peatlands but which has since made a zero deforestation commitment, will soon be building dams to help protect vulnerable peatlands. This Thursday 13 August the company will announce a commitment retire 7,000 hectares of acacia plantations. It will start restoring these areas by first re-wetting the dried-out peatlands by building a series of dams within the concessions. It will then start to restore the areas to natural forests.
Clearly there is still a long way to go to protect Indonesia’s peatlands – but the tide is clearly starting to turn, and I am proud to have played my part.
My friend Zamzami, who works with Greenpeace Southeast Asia in Riau and approached me to write this blog, tells me that APP has taken this step based on the advice of an independent group of peat experts who were tasked with mapping peatlands using ground-breaking LiDAR technology. Covering some 5 million hectares – nearly 25% of Indonesia’s peatlands, an area larger than The Netherlands – the mapping initiative features LiDAR technology to build an accurate picture of the major peat domes that need protecting. It’s clear that this constitutes the most comprehensive and credible data on peatlands ever obtained in Indonesia.
Of course this is only a start for APP, which controls vast tracts of Sumatra’s peatland. The experts will be making more recommendations on how APP can reduce other impacts of peatland drainage, and the public will be watching to see if those recommendations are are heeded. Meanwhile, APRIL, the other major pulp and paper company here in Indonesia, has also made a commitment earlier this year to protect peatland forests – but so far there is little sign of these commitments being translated into credible action.
Awang Kuswara is a Greenpeace volunteer, and a school teacher in Bekasi, near Jakarta.
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