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Forest and peatland fires burning across Indonesia in the second half of 2015 and again in early 2016 have made international headlines with some reports referring to the fires as “the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century”. Since the last major fire incident in 1997-98, which also coincided with an El Niño episode, the nature and intensity of fires has changed and fires are now occurring in both the wet and dry seasons.

While the fires have evolved, techniques for preventing fire outbreak have not. Historically, fire management in Indonesia has been reactionary as resources are deployed after fires hotspots have been detected.

Forest and peatland fires, and the resulting haze, impact Indonesia’s sustainable long-term environmental and socio-economic development, as well as that of the neighbouring region. The impact of the 2015-2016 fires, and demand on resources to mitigate the impacts of fires, illustrate the need for improved fire prevention.

The UNEP project for Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilization of Tropical Peatlands (GAMBUT) aims to reduce the number of burning fires, or hotspots, and consequently, reduce haze impacts and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from key fire-prone areas. The GAMBUT project is a systematic shift from the current bush fire management paradigm to fire risk mitigation in degraded tropical peatland. The protection and restoration of peatland in Indonesia is particularly important given that it is estimated that of the 2.6 million hectares of land that burned between June and October 2015, 33 per cent was carbon-rich peatland.

The GAMBUT project also aims to improve the ability of provincial- and district-based fire coordination centres and community organizations to effectively respond to fires more effectively through the use of the fire early warning system.

The project targets eight high-risk districts in two provinces, Riau and Central Kalimantan, with scoping missions in West Kalimantan and Papua. These provinces are experiencing some of the worst impacts of the fires, including dangerous health effects, cancelled flights, closed schools and worldwide negative attention.

The project aims to change the fire management system from a response-orientated paradigm to a comprehensive and integrated fire risk mitigation system. At the core of GAMBUT is the climate-based and web-hosted Fire Risk System (FRS) to effectively improve risk information by providing a likely forecast of fires in a given area one to three months in advance. The FRS considers weather, socio-economic and biophysical assessment of fire vulnerability, El Niño Southern Oscillation phenomena and climate predictions to generate a fire risk forecast.  Additionally, the FRS sets a periodic benchmarking trajectory of fire risk year-to-year, providing a platform for equipping provincial and district stakeholders with the tools and capacity to mainstream anticipatory fire management into annual development plans.

While the GABMUT project aims to reduce haze impacts and GHG emissions from the land-use sector through improved fire risk management, it acknowledges the complex social, economic and environmental factors that interact to result in a high incidence of fire hotspots. The dynamics that the project faces include the emergence of independent smallholder growers, in contrast to large-scale estates leading to major shifts in land use, supply chains and demographics in the sector. These changes in dynamics have increased fire vulnerabilities by processes of clearing, draining and compacting peat lands rendering the peat extremely dry and vulnerable to fires that run deep underground. In addition, the economic and political pressures upon the land have given rise to rapid land use and expansion, and overlapping land claims and tenure between communities, concessionaries and the government.

The GAMBUT project is a unique collaboration between the Government of Indonesia and relevant stakeholders including the United Nations, USAID and two of the world’s foremost research centres – Centre for Climate Risk and Opportunity Management in Southeast Asia and Pacific at Bogor Agricultural University and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.