'Slash and burn' in Indonesia: Getting to the root of the problem

Farming in Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan in Indonesia. How are global development practitioners helping local communities in Indonesia achieve sustainable economic and social development while fighting climate change? Photo by: Tim Cronin / Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC-ND

When it comes to carbon dioxide and climate change, the focus is understandably on the role played by the burning of fossil fuels. Power production, transportation and manufacturing — the necessary elements of industrial development — are undoubtedly the primary arena for effective change.

But agricultural production, especially in developing countries, also plays a large role in carbon dioxide emissions. The culprit? “Slash and burn” — a crude deforestation technique used in a number of countries, no more so than in Indonesia.

This fall, much of Southeast Asia has been engulfed by smoke and haze produced by Indonesian farmers engaged in slash and burn techniques. This year’s extra long dry season, coupled with a tropical storm, left the country burning for over two months. Indonesia — and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia — is now covered in a toxic brown haze. Throughout the region, schools, airports, and other public services have had to shut down because of smog. Half a million cases of respiratory illness have been reported.

According to the Global Fire Emissions Database, on many days in September and October the carbon dioxide emissions from the Indonesia fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States. In those two months, fire emissions were higher than Germany’s total CO2 emissions.

This year’s fires have educated many laypeople in what is known to environmentalists: Indonesia is among the world’s top 10 carbon emitters. When its fires are raging, the country is catapulted to the top five.

Most of the burning, while performed by small farmers, is conducted in pursuit of large-scale agricultural production. Massive monocrop plantations dominate Indonesia’s agricultural sector. These are overwhelmingly palm oil plantations often owned by foreign conglomerates. Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world and its output of approximately 31 million metric tons, two-thirds of which is exported, has increased over 50 percent since 2008.    

Palm oil is found in food products, cosmetics and other packaged goods. In addition, it has been increasingly used as a biofuel for electricity production, substituting for coal and other fossil fuels. Environmental groups concur that producing palm oil biofuel using current techniques is, on balance, a net negative for the climate.

Getting to the root of the problem

The place to start addressing slash and burn — what the Indonesian government has called “a crime against humanity” — is the legal status of small-scale farming communities.    

Seventy-five percent of Indonesia’s 472 million acres of land is classified as State Forest Land.   The term is deceptive, as about 30 percent of this state-owned land is without trees. It does have bushes and other vegetation, the raw material for slash and burn clearance techniques.

Smaller farming communities often live on these lands. But they do it without a legal right to be there. As a result, many households operate outside the law, with little legal protection of any kind or access to government services. They farm small plots for themselves, or work informally on large plantations. With no land of their own, or legal right to farm state-owned land, these communities lack any incentive to practice sustainable techniques.

Indonesian state-owned forests can be legally accessed and managed through various means, including the national forest registry, community plantation forests, or village forests plans. As anywhere else in the world, most Indonesian small farming communities are unaware of central government legal and bureaucratic processes. Even if small communities were made aware of their legal rights, they generally lack the expertise and resources to secure them.

Here is what an Indonesian farm community must do to secure the right to farm on State Forest Land: First, it must map the land it wishes to manage. Next, it must set up a community organization. After that, it must learn and understand the various forestry programs that apply to State Forest Lands. Finally, the community must submit a proposal to the Ministry of Forestry.

This process, which requires a significant degree of expertise and knowledge of government processes, can take up to four years to complete.

Making an impact, at the local level

This is where the development community comes in. Local professionals can effectively navigate a process that can quickly overwhelm farmers.

Once development groups have assisted communities secure a legal right to produce on State Forest Land, these communities have an incentive to care for “their” plots. Development groups can also help them act on that incentive through training in sustainable forestry and farming techniques. These include soil and water conservation, multi-cropping, rainfall prediction studies and mapping, the use of livestock manure and urine for fertilizers and insecticides, and more.

To move beyond subsistence, these communities also need to learn basic financial and marketing techniques. That often means literacy training.

In other words, securing a legal right triggers a community-centered sustainable development process.

With the support of the Ford Foundation and working with local partners, our group has implemented this type of program in communities throughout Indonesia. We have helped 16,000 farmers obtain the legal right to cultivate over 37,000 acres of State Forest Land using low-cost sustainable techniques including those described above. Slash and burn is no longer practiced and output and incomes from rice, coffee, nuts and a variety of fruits and vegetables have increased.

Ours is a relatively small project. But it, and other scalable projects like it, demonstrates the potential for these rights-based and educational efforts to enable farm communities to move away from slash and burn farming and toward sustainable development.

No one believes transitioning from agriculture built on large-scale deforestation will be easy or inexpensive, anymore than moving away from coal and other fossil fuels is. Indonesia and other countries will need to make significant changes. And developed nations will have to invest the necessary funds to help them do so. But these changes and investments are achievable and necessary. They present an opportunity to help millions of vulnerable people achieve the kind of sustainable economic and social development that protects local communities and the entire planet.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Kate Schecter

    Kate Schecter is president and CEO of World Neighbors, Inc., an international development organization founded and based in Oklahoma City. She previously worked for the American International Health Alliance and the World Bank.