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Indonesia

A villager carries buckets of compost on a farm in Pemongkong village in East Lombok, eastern Indonesia, May 17, 2017. The farm practises conservation agriculture which encourages the use of organic fertiliser. — Thomson Reuters Foundation pic

PEMONGKONG, June 5 — In early 2016, when fellow farmers were despairing over plummeting yields linked to a major drought, Hamdi was busy harvesting maize from his land.

He got 5.6 tonnes instead of the usual 4 tonnes from his one-hectare (2.5-acre) plot, despite living in West Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia’s driest provinces where agriculture is at the mercy of extreme weather such as that brought by the El Nino climate pattern.

“El Nino did not affect those practising conservation agriculture, but those who weren’t suffered a lot,” the 38-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a sunny afternoon in Pemongkong village on Lombok island.

Hamdi, who goes by one name only, was among the first in his village to adopt the natural farming method in October 2015, just before El Nino hit.

He was initially attracted by talk of possible savings because conservation agriculture requires less fertiliser, as well as less labour for weeding and preparing land.

But the greatest benefit so far has been its ability to help Hamdi weather the long drought.

Lombok farmers who practised conservation agriculture were more resilient to the effects of El Nino, harvesting about 70 per cent more than those using traditional methods, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“Conservation agriculture is about renewing the life of the soil,” said John Weatherson, an advisor to the FAO. “It’s about stabilising yield so when the shocks come, the farmers are sitting pretty.”

The method has always been around, but rising pressures from a changing climate, growing population and shrinking arable land have prompted “a search for more sustainable, ecologically conscious practices”, said Catherine Chan-Halbrendt, an expert on the issue at the University of Hawaii.

In conservation agriculture, soil disturbance is kept to a minimum, using permanent planting holes fertilised with compost instead of chemicals.

The soil surface is covered with crop residues as mulch, and farmers rotate crops or inter-crop between cereals and legumes.

These practices help reduce erosion and water run-off, and increase soil fertility and crop yields, experts say.

Pemongkong villagers, who have tried the method for two planting seasons, say yields have risen. Alongside lower costs for fertilisers and labour, they have more money in their hands.

Read more: Indonesian farmers befriend soil to protect harvests from climate stress

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What can we do to break the cycle of the haze over the long term? How might we address the underlying drivers and achieve sustainable solutions?

Children in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan wear masks when playing outside. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

Indonesia - Fire in agriculture is a mixed blessing. A cost-effective tool for poor farmers, fire has been key for food production for millennia. In 2000, vegetation fires covered 350 Mha – or about 3% of the global land area – most of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The benefits of these fires must be recognized. Indeed, appropriately managed fire has an important role in many landscapes and ecological settings.

Read more: Preventing fire & haze: sustainable solutions for Indonesian peatlands

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Environmentalists fear it could put one of Borneo’s last best coastal peat swamp forests at risk.
A Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). The ape is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
  • West Kalimantan Governor Cornelis asked President Joko Widodo to let some timber plantation companies drain peatlands, even though Jakarta banned the practice last year.
  • In a letter to the president dated Apr. 25, Cornelis makes an economic argument for allowing the companies to proceed as usual.
  • Cornelis is a member of an international consortium of governors dedicated to fighting climate change; Greenpeace said his request to the president amounted to a "double standard."
  • His request came just days after Jakarta sanctioned a timber firm in his province for building an illegal canal through the Sungai Putri peat swamp forest.

The West Kalimantan governor wants to exempt timber firms in the Indonesian province from a national ban on peatland drainage, drawing the ire of green groups who say such a policy shift could spell the end of one of the Bornean orangutan’s last strongholds, the Sungai Putri rainforest.

Governor Cornelis, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, outlined his request in a letter to the president dated Apr. 25 — days after the Ministry of Environment and Forestry sanctioned a plantation firm for building an illegal drainage canal through Sungai Putri.

“Companies will lose confidence to invest in the forestry sector,” Cornelis wrote to President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. An exemption was needed, he argued, “in order to maintain a conducive and comfortable investment climate.”

Jokowi introduced the ban in the wake of the devastating 2015 forest and land fires, which burned an area the size of Vermont and sickened half a million people. The country’s vast peat swamp zones have been widely drained and dried for agriculture, rendering them highly flammable and prone to emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases.

Reports of timber firm PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa (MPK)’s activities in Sungai Putri, one of the last best coastal peat swamp forests on the island of Borneo, began to emerge last year. In March, the environment ministry visited the area; on Apr. 21, it ordered the company to stop operating and close the canal, which then stretched 8.1 kilometers long.

Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, a member of the ministry’s law enforcement team, said that if the company did not obey the ministry’s instructions, its permit could be frozen or revoked. The ministry would also consider a lawsuit, she said.

Read more: Indonesian governor asks president to let timber firms drain peat in his province

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