Response to the Laman Satong fire

After five years of intensive forest restoration work at a site in West Kalimantan (with our NGO, ASRI), a fire burned through most of the 20 hectares we had planted. Shortly after, I wrote the following letter to a handful of old staff and volunteers who had helped with the planting. Health in Harmony, our main fundraising partner, asked to share the letter on their website. I thought I would post it here too.

Dear friends,

I write with sad news. Some of you may have heard it, but I still want to write to all of you who have given so much to this restoration work with ASRI. Last Saturday [2013-09-29], there was a huge, hot fire at Laman Satong. Within four hours it spread to almost all areas of our plantings. It seems that mortality of all plants save the tallest trees will be near 100%. One small mercy was that it failed to spread to some of the very first areas we planted in 2009. About a half hectare survived, and still looks green and well. But most of the seedlings planted in the 20 ha are dead.

I heard the news on Sunday and was at the site by noon Monday, with most of the conservation staff of ASRI. We did our best to comfort the field crew, who are dazed and deeply disappointed. We shared thoughts and feelings for a bit, then split into 4 groups and walked around the site. Surprisingly, it rained heavily in the afternoon, just what we were hoping for: a few of the plants teetering on the edge of death might now live. We came back on Tuesday and gently tried to ascertain what had happened on Saturday. Finally we started to ask what people felt we should do next.

It seems the fire started by the road, alongside the 2011 block, about 12:00 noon. We don’t know how it started, but don’t suspect foul play. A cigarette butt could have done it, or a hot exhaust pipe. The fire spread rapidly and by 14:00 had consumed much of 2009, 2010 and 2011 blocks. The alarm was raised at ca. 13:00 and Jhony and other staff arrived ca. 13:50. Soon, many villagers from Pal 15 had arrived, but there was no fighting this fire. Fortunately, most people stayed back, and we had no injuries other than some coughing from over-exposure to smoke. Jhony called Erica at ca. 14:00 and she arrived with several ASRI staff about 16:00. Jhony and several others stay overnight, and by the morning only a few of the old stumps and logs were still smoldering.

On Wednesday night we had a meeting with the community, to discuss our feelings about this, what we might do next, and also to apologize, at least to the extent that we might have done more to prevent it. The meeting was subdued, but the desire to see ‘what was once green be green again’ seemed to be shared by all. I was struck most by the general laughter when I asked if any had had rubber orchards burned up in a fire: “of course!” was the general response, with the implication that these disasters just happen, and you get over it and try again.

We are all struggling to make sense of what has happened, as I’m sure you are and will continue to be. For me, the first reactions were the natural ones of disappointment, sadness, loss of hopes for a green, cool forest in that place, and a bitter sense of wasted energy, time and money, accompanied by some guilt (more of that later). However, reflecting on the fire on Tuesday morning, I was struck by the truth of the classic wisdom of ‘means versus ends.’ The action of planting and tending was a good, true means to express our care of the land, and our hope for transformation. The ‘end,’ a green forest, was of course a hope, but it was hubris to believe that our actions alone were sufficient to bring about this end (I have found Bhagavad-Gita 3:19 to be helpful here). We create so much pain for ourselves by thinking we know how things ‘should’ turn out, when all we can control is our actions and words in the present. Additionally, these good ‘means’ were always primarily symbolic, recognizing that 20 ha out of perhaps 10,000 ha is insignificant for the end of re-greening the park. But the project did communicate that i) it is damn hard to put back trees once you cut them, ii) that you can try to put them back if you believe it is important, and iii) that ASRI is serious about its restoration actions, particularly in the tending. This vital symbolic action has already been completed, and is not in any way affected by the loss of the forest. And we believe that it has had much of the desired impact in the communities. Logging in these nearby communities is almost zero, and people believe that ASRI’s engagement is partially responsible; the communities greatly respect us for the post-planting tending we have done; and while we cannot claim to have made everyone ‘love the trees more,’ some community members have expressed that they are more likely to think twice now before they cut a tree down.

Because of the essentially symbolic nature of what we have done, it is very important how we go forward from here. I think we managed to move through the first week as well as we could, coming in with sympathy and accepting our own partial responsibility rather than seeking blame. While we have not decided yet what to do, the desire of the workers and community is clear: carry on. I also believe that, at least for this current year (Dec 2013 planting), this is probably the right thing to do, sending the message (to all: us and community) that we continue to care for this land, and are not despairing and giving up. We have 15,000 seedlings in the nursery, just the right number to re-plant the burned 2009 area. We would then put a serious firebreak around this. Further into the future, however, I am less sure about the way to go forward, leaning towards applying alternative/lower-cost techniques. We also do not know what TN [National Park office] will say about all this and whether we will be allowed to keep working there. And even this year’s actions need to be subject to much debate, and we welcome your own thoughts on what to do in both the short and long term.

As for responsibility... I owe you the truth: the fact is that the firebreak was not in place; it had been started, and was partially finished for the boundary of 2012 and most of 2011, but 2010 and 2009 blocks were linked to the road edge by a tall strip of alang-alang. Who knows if a firebreak would have stopped a hot, wind-driven fire, but we never gave it a chance. Additionally, there was no fire-watcher on site. There are a number of reasons for these failures, which I won’t go into here, but as the longest-involved and senior ‘guide’ of this project, I accept a large share of the responsibility myself. I’m sorry to you all for my part in this sad event. I have learned a lot in the past week about conservation projects, their human context, and the right ‘attitude of heart’ for success in all its dimensions.

I hope you will find a way to make peace with this news. Because of its symbolic role for ASRI, for Gunung Palung and for each of us, I think this fire is indeed a significant tragedy, and not one to be passed over lightly. May we all know better in the future how to create and sustain the ‘Right Means’ in our nature conservation and human development activities.