SIAK, Indonesia, – Setiono Ono pauses his morning wildfire patrol near the northeastern coast of Sumatra island at a small timber dam between a logged area and an oil palm plantation.
Water the colour of charcoal is leaking out from the dam along a narrow canal cut to drain the surrounding peatland.
The dam, built by the local community here in the Siak regency of Riau province, is one of thousands of canal barriers constructed in recent years to protect Indonesia’s peatlands, seen as critical in the fight against climate change.
“We need to fix this,” said fire patrol leader Setiono, 40, before heading into the patchy forest with two other volunteers.
Peat accounts for about 3% of the world’s land surface, but peatlands store more carbon than all other terrestrial vegetation combined, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
When peatlands burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for almost 6% of the annual carbon dioxide emissions fuelling global warming, the IUCN says.
Indonesia is home to more than a third of the world’s tropical peat, giving it a key role in safeguarding the carbon-rich ecosystem.
But in recent decades, its peatlands – 10 metres (33 ft) deep in places – have experienced rapid conversion into valuable commercial plantations to meet rising international demand for palm oil, pulp and paper.
That has helped lift small farmers out of poverty but also brought urgent environmental and public health risks.
Plantation trees fare poorly in drenched soil, so companies have dug thousands of kilometres of canals to drain off water.
But dissecting the landscape with these canals has dried it out and increased peatland fires, which smoulder underground for long periods and can often be doused only by heavy rain.
The threat is highest when climate patterns prolong Sumatra’s main dry season beyond September, as in 2015 and 2019.
In 2015, fires burned about 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Indonesia, an area 20 times larger than Los Angeles, about a third of it peat.
But in Setiono’s village, there have been no fires since 2017 – which many here attribute to the former illegal logger.
After leaving middle school as a teenager, Setiono spent almost a decade of his youth cutting down trees and dodging tigers and police in the peat forest he now looks after.
He suffered frequent injuries and was hospitalised after a chainsaw slipped and tore through his thigh. Eleven other illegal loggers he knew were jailed.
He guesses he felled more than 100 trees in the forest near the leaking dam.
“For me this is strong motivation,” said Setiono. “The bottom line is that I used to destroy nature.”
Setiono now heads the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA), or “Fire Care Community”, for Rawa Mekar Jaya, a village on the north coast of Siak about 150 km (93 miles) west of Singapore.
Community fire initiatives began in Indonesia under pilot schemes in the early 2000s, before the government formally established the MPA programme in 2009.
At the peak of the 2015 fire crisis, state firefighters worked morning to night as power lines burned and schools closed for a month under a blanket of toxic haze.
“Everyone had respiratory infections, coughs, breathing difficulties,” Setiono told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A study by Harvard and Columbia universities indicated the 2015 air pollution could have caused 100,000 premature deaths.
Setiono heard about the community fire prevention programme that year and travelled to Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, for a month’s basic training.
Five years on, he has built one of Riau’s largest village fire brigades, with no dedicated funding.
Donated fire hoses and generators are stacked ready in a garden shed next to his red-brick bungalow.
Other equipment is stored a short drive away at the fire brigade’s office, surrounded by dark sumps and pineapple plants.
MPA members keep bees, using proceeds from honey sales to fund the community organisation.
“If there is a fire and smoke enters this village, then our children could become asthmatic,” said MPA volunteer and father-of-two Suroso Lilik, 37.
The group convenes every morning to check on the 16,800-hectare area it is responsible for.
Its 25 volunteers work in shifts, patrolling the river on a small barge and traversing degraded fields on foot.
“Our village is ours,” said Setiono. “If we don’t (do this), who else is there?”