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Doctoral defence of Rijal Ramdani 11.12.2023: New study sheds light on the connection of peatland fires and oil palm expansion in Indonesia

Indonesia’s tropical peatlands store significant carbon, but they are prone to fires. In his doctoral research, Rijal Ramdani investigates the transformation of peatland into oil palm plantations before and after fires, as well as the related changes of ownership. Furthermore, the study focuses on the impact of transferring responsibilities on the relationships between environmental NGOs in peatland protection, and how various actors collaborate to govern and adapt to peatland fires. The study also investigates the turning points that can shift conflicts over peatland water sharing into collaboration.

The study shows that peatland fires are related to oil palm expansions. According to the study, seven out of the 12 burned peatland areas have been converted into oil palm plantations in Sumatra. In the community case study, villagers also noted changes in weather predictability as well as prolonged dry seasons due to El Niño events that put villagers vulnerable to fires. Moreover, conflicts over access to peatland water sharing exist between the local community and a timber company, leading to more fires in the village.

The local communities in Sumatra are excluded from the forest rights. Therefore, the local communities expand their agricultural activities, mainly planting oil palm trees in abandoned land of the State Property Rights (SPR) to Private Property Rights (PPR). The local communities also use fires to clear the land.

“De facto open access to the abandoned land is behind the crucial factor of peatland transformation into oil palm plantations before and after fires,” Ramdani says.

Environmental NGOs have a crucial role in carrying out the responsibility of peatland protection

Advocacy and service ENGOs have a crucial role in carrying out the responsibility of peatland protection in Sumatra. The relationship between advocacy ENGOs and their donors is developed based on mutual interests. Conversely, service ENGOs have no freedom to conduct any actions necessary to protect the peatland due to donors’ intervention. Different actions and material support between advocacy and service ENGOs also create distrust in which each has a negative expectation of the others.

Donors and government institutions may also need to reconsider transferring the responsibilities to ENGOs because sometimes the transfer of such responsibilities can create conflict between different types of ENGOs in the grassroots. 

The government needs to accommodate the local communities’ rights over the land

Donors and governments sometimes neglect the roles of the local communities in the burning activities and land rights.

“It is essential to focus on the local communities and how they can shift the land clearing activities from using fires to a more sustainable way. The government also needs to accommodate the local communities’ rights over the land,” Ramdani says.

Furthermore, the local communities residing near peatlands play pivotal roles in mitigating and adapting to peatland fires. While these communities can receive such responsibilities, for example, to collaborate, the transfer of these duties should be accompanied by the transfer of powers such as financial support, capabilities and technologies.

In the community case study, villagers changed their way of life by establishing the Peatland Care Community (PCC) and the Fire Care Community (FCC) to collaborate with other actors. They work together to construct canal blocks, conduct fire patrols and fight fires. Those collaborative activities have reduced not only the potential occurrence of fires but also the vulnerability of villagers to peatland fires.

“In addition, there is a pressing need for an open atmosphere for a third party to facilitate conflict resolution and the transformation of conflicts into collaborations,” Ramdani says.

The qualitative case study was carried out in Riau Province, in Sumatra, Indonesia due to its most extensive tropical peatland ecosystem and vulnerability to fires. The data were collected through participatory observations, face-to-face key informant interviews, and document analysis conducted in 2016, 2018 and 2020. The study also utilised a Geographical Information System (GIS) to visually present the evidence of oil palm existence in the burned areas and the canal block distributions in the community case study village. Those methods and materials are the core evidence of qualitative research, particularly the case study.

The research was carried out within the University of Eastern Finland’s shared doctoral student position system, with half of the funding provided by the Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The doctoral dissertation of Rijal Ramdani, MPA, entitled Governing Fires in the Tropics. Peatland Fires and Oil Palm Expansions in Sumatra, Indonesia, will be examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies on 11 December 2023 at 10 AM in the Aurora Building, AuditoriumAU100. The Opponent will be Professor Jesse Ribot, the American University, Washington, D.C., and the Custos will be Professor Irmeli Mustalahti, University of Eastern Finland. The language of the public examination is English. The public examination will be streamed live.

Public examination 

Dissertation book online

For further information, please contact:

Rijal Ramdani, rijal.ramdani(at)