Smart Partnership in Fire Prevention and Peat Forest Restoration: A Case Study

David Lee[1], T.Y. Chee and F. Parish


Significant prolonged months of extreme dry period in the region of Southeast Asia resulted in many fires over areas such as Central Kalimantan, South Sumatera, Southern Thailand and also in Malaysia. Most of the haze that blanketed the region was due to the burning of peat swamp forests or agricultural peatlands. This case study focused on the "smart-partnership" between private stakeholders and NGOs in minimizing the threats of fire in peatlands by addressing the issues of fire prevention and alternative management of peatland. Perbadanan Kemajuan Pertanian Selangor (PKPS) or Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation, who owns a piece of agricultural land on peat soil that is adjacent to the National Forest Reserve, faced the problems of persistent fires that not only wiped out its entire crops, but threatened to destroy the fringes of the Forest Reserve nearby. Through a series of consultations and workshops, this issue was able to be addressed with an NGO taking the lead in studying these problems in this piece of land and subsequently providing some advice to the stakeholder for better management of the peatland that would prevent further fires from occurring. A multi-agency consultative approach was taken into consideration in order to manage the land in a sustainable manner. Recommendations were given with the priority on preventing further fires and promoting rehabilitation of vegetation. The receptiveness and initiatives of the stakeholder successfully made this partnership a reality through which the peatland was restored. The threats of fire were greatly reduced if not eliminated after the whole place was flooded with water by raising the water table, and the adjacent Forest Reserve has also been protected at the same time. Hence, it has served as a partnership model on sustainable management worth adopting by other agencies who are addressing environmental issues.


In 1997-98, there were major forest and land fires in Southeast Asia associated with an El Nino induced drought. A total of 10 million ha of forest was burnt during that time, primarily in Indonesia, but also to a lesser extent in Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. These forest fires burnt or partially degraded more than 1.45 million ha of peatlands, which is about 4% of the total peatland areas in the region. One million hectare of peat swamp forest in Indonesia was damaged in this period (BAPPENAS, 1999). Fires in the area of peat soils were identified as the major contributors (about 60% of particulates) to the smoke and haze which enveloped a major part of the region and contributed to an estimated economic loss of US$9 billion.

In Malaysia alone, almost 20,000 ha of peatland has been destroyed or degraded since 1997 of which 4000ha are in and adjacent to the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (NSPSF). Since then, fire becomes major threat to peatlands and subsequent recurring fires were recorded also in the year 1998, 2000 and 2001 (Forestry Statistics, 2000). The common causes of fire were found to be open burning, hunting and fishing activities, human negligence and land clearing for agriculture purposes.

As a result of the fire incidence in the year 2001 and early 2002, a workshop on prevention and control of fires in peatlands was held from March 19 till 21, 2002 in Malaysia, that was jointly organized by the Forestry Department, Peninsular Malaysia and Global Environment Centre (GEC) with support from ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC) and attended by more than 60 participants from Malaysia and selected countries from the ASEAN region. (Workshop Statement in Annex 1). During the workshop, issues on fire prevention, conservation and rehabilitation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia were examined. A field visit to PKPS land was organized for the participants to one of the fire affected area in Selangor, Malaysia.

Following the workshop, a dialogue was initiated between PKPS and GEC. Through a mutual agreement, GEC agreed to conduct an initial preliminary study to assist PKPS to assess the issues of fire prevention and control measures, and alternative management options or future directions for PKPS to focus on. The rapid study was carried out over a period of 2 months from May to June, 2002. Following this study, another joint visit by representatives of PKPS, GEC, Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID), and Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) was organized to the study area on 10th of July 2002 to assess and discuss the issues at hand. Discussions from the field assessment contributed to the development options of the study area and some initial measures to prevent further fire and minimise threats to the adjacent Forest Reserve.

Site Description

The project site is in a property owned by Perbadanan Kemajuan Pertanian Selangor or Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation, approximately 360 hectares in the Selangor State, Peninsular Malaysia. It is partly in ex-tin mining land and originally was peat swamp forest near the town of Batang Berjuntai. This land was acquired from the State Government of Selangor and is situated adjacent to the Raja Musa Forest Reserve within North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (See Map 1).

The study area is an area of 123 hectares in the northern portion of this PKPS land. Initial development started in 1999 and was initially focused on this 123 hectares site. During that time, a series of drainage channels were cut through the peat and oil palm was planted on about 60% of the site. This oil palm development was not successful due to a variety of factors including predation of wild boars as well as fire.

In February 2002, fire burnt most parts of the study site (see photo 1) and more than 300 of firemen took almost three weeks to bring the fire under control. Forest fires do occur in this piece of property frequently and PKPS sought assistance for long term fire control and prevention methods in order that this particular property could be developed without the constant threat from fires. At the same time, PKPS has the desire to look for other options to optimize the development of this property.

Study Results and Recommendations

Results from the survey showed that the peat in the burnt area was generally 2-4 metres deep and were highly compacted due to drainage and subsidence to sunlight. There were evidence of peat subsidence due to the drop of water level, and burning of up to 60cm by fires. Peat materials were very dry and highly combustible. The drainage network that was constructed within the whole area has no functioning water control structures. Water was being drained out from the land to the adjacent mining pond, especially by the main canals in between the Raja Musa forest reserve and northern boundary of PKPS land. Water table was about 1.0-1.5m below the soil surface (see photo 2).

Fires over the last two years had left a high percentage of the area totally barren and the re-vegetation process in certain parts of the area appears to favour ferns and Imperata cylindrica only (which are vulnerable to future fire). The logging operation conducted between March and June 2002 had cleared the remaining forest areas (40% of the 123 hectares) which were not impacted by the earlier fires had left a lot of waste materials which are providing fuel for future fires.

From the results of the short study, preliminary recommendations to PKPS were as follows:

1. To block the outflow of water in canals that are classified as small/medium which has minimal discharge of water,

2. To install water gates in large canals to control the outflow of water which causes severe water outflow,

3. To clear all debris along canals that impedes the water flow when water has reached the optimum level.

4. Regular monitoring of water levels for early warning signs of fire danger

5. Constant surveillance for fires in and around the site

A further multidisciplinary approach study was recommended to PKPS in order to rationalize and select the best options to manage and develop the property. Issues to be addressed are permanent regulation of waterflow, "low fire risk-high water table" land development options such as aquaculture, wet agriculture, eco-tourism and research and education instead of "high fire risk-low/medium water table" such as oil palm plantation, rubber, cocoa, cash crops such as pineapple, and ginger.

Stakeholder's Initiative and Approach

The preliminary study report and recommendations were submitted to the PKPS landowners. Subsequently, during a field visit on the 6th of September 2002, it was found that PKPS had taken the measures to block all canals within the area in order to raise the water table. Simple water control structures were installed at various parts of the canals (see photo 3).

It was found that peat soil had been used as a permeable water gate together with a sheets of metal plunged vertically across canal to prevent water out flow. As water level had since then being raised and peat soil in that area are wet, the risk of fire during is minimized if not totally eliminated. At some parts of the land, water level had even reached the surface of road (see photo 4). Re-vegetation had been found at various site due to the high water table.


From this study and the results of cooperative effort to minimize threat of fire on peatland, we can conclude that water level is the key issue in peatland management, especially in the prevention of fire. Uncontrolled and excess drainage from peatland leads to lowering of water table and subsequently to irreversible drying and degradation of peat soils. Therefore, it is important to maintain a certain height of water table so as to prevent fire and encourage natural revegetation. This collaborative effort between a private stakeholder and NGO is very much desirable in the sustainable management and wise use of peatlands. This case study would serve as an example for the other agencies to follow. Hence, peatland management urgently needs a multi-disciplinary and cross sectoral approach.


The authors would like to express our gratitude to Perbadanan Kemajuan Pertanian Selangor (PKPS) for inviting us to conduct this short study, Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, Selangor Forestry Department, and the agencies involved in the multi-disciplinary field assessment such as Forest Research Institute Malaysia, and Drainage and Irrigation Department.


BAPPENAS, 1999. Final Report on Planning and Drought Management in Indonesia. Forestry Statistics, 2000. Forest Department Peninsular Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

Map 1 : Map showing location of PKPS land

Photo 1. A glance at the burnt peatland in PKPS – February 2002

Photo 2. Water table dropped to about 1-1.5 m during dry season exposing vast amount of dry peat – May 2002

Photo 3. Simple structure installed to raise water level- September 2002

Photo 4. Water flooded the road due to blocking of canals – September 2002


The Workshop on Fire Prevention and Control in Peatlands was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 19-21 March 2002. The Workshop was jointly organized by the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and Global Environment Centre with support from the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation. It was attended by more than 60 technical experts and representatives from a broad range of government agencies from Malaysia, as well as selected NGOs and international participants. The Workshop was officially opened by the Director General of the Forestry Department, Peninsular Malaysia, Y. Bhg. Datuk Zul Mukhshar bin Dato' Md. Shaari.

This Workshop examined three main issues: fire prevention, fire control and rehabilitation of peatlands. Detailed presentations were made on 19 March on a broad range of issues ranging from peatland fire control, hydrology, rehabilitation, fire prevention, biodiversity, climate change to management and monitoring methodologies. A field assessment of peatland management and recent peat fires in Selangor was made on 20 March. Three Working Groups elaborated in detail, issues related to peatland fire prevention, control and rehabilitation and prepared a broad range of recommendations on 21 March, which were subsequently reviewed by the Workshop participants through plenary and panel discussions.

The Workshop noted that Southeast Asia has more than 60% of the world's tropical peatlands that play a significant role in maintaining the hydrological balance, regulating local or global climate, playing host to a wide range of biological diversity, as well as providing key socio-economic benefits. The immense capacity of peatlands to sequester and store carbon and thereby mitigate global climate change has attracted a lot of attention recently.

Tropical peatland is a fragile ecosystem which is vulnerable to fire and for which rehabilitation after major damage is very expensive and difficult. The Workshop noted the continuing loss and degradation of peat swamp forests in recent years, especially the damage of over 10 million ha of land, including 1.5 million ha of peatland, through the extensive forest fires of 1997/98 which caused an estimated economic loss of US$9 billion in the region and the release of 1,500 million tonnes of carbon. Similarly, the extensive peat fires which have been burning in Malaysia and Indonesia in February- March 2002 were noted with concern.


The Workshop agreed that concerted efforts to combat the susceptibility of peatlands to fire hazards are urgently needed between the various agencies nationwide, as well as between the affected countries in the region and urged governments, research institutions, NGOs, private sector and other organizations to work together in achieving the following goal:

To establish a cooperative programme to prevent and control fires in Peatlands in Malaysia and other South East Asian Countries.


The Workshop further called for the following actions to be undertaken (not in priority order):

1. Identify and protect key tropical peatland sites important for biodiversity, carbon storage, hydrological functions and socio-economic values to local communities.

2. Strengthen interagency cooperation to facilitate integrated, multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches to prevent and control peatland fire, as well as the sustainable use of peatland resources.

3. Develop a comprehensive set of guidelines/manuals that will help prevent and control peatland fires, including developing fire danger index, fire management plans, water management strategies, early warning systems and fire control strategies.

4. Prepare fire management plans for all peatlands with fire risk to include risk assessment; implementation strategies; cooperation with other agencies; allocation and training of human resources; provision of appropriate tools/equipment; development of operating procedures; and strengthening of legislation and regulations.

5. Elaborate further the concept for the establishment of Buffer zones around peatland areas in which development and land use activities may be controlled to minimize risk of fire.

6. Formulate and implement water management strategies for previously drained peatlands to improve water tables and thereby enhance fire control and preventive measures, as well as support rehabilitation efforts.

7. Develop and document techniques, and promote rehabilitation of degraded peatlands by restoring water regimes and forest cover to reduce fire risk and enhance biodiversity and socio-economic benefits.

8. Enhance cooperation among governments of Southeast Asia in the protection of tropical peatland resources and prevention of peatland fire, such as through the framework of the ASEAN Haze Action Plan.

9. Strengthen regional cooperation and research for peatland restoration and management through the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, based in the Philippines.

10. Strengthen mechanisms for exchange of experience and information, including on funding opportunities, among those working on peatlands in the region, such as the Global Environment Centre coordinated SEA-Peat network and PEAT-PORTAL website or through establishment of specialised discussion groups on fire prevention and control.

11. Establish demonstration projects to test and promote approaches on fire prevention and post-fire rehabilitation in the overall context of sustainable management of peatland resources.

12. Develop public awareness and education programmes addressing schools, local residents and user groups, to enhance the active participation and support from key target groups in the control and prevention of peatland fire.

13. Promote and facilitate increase in allocation of human and financial resources by national agencies and international donor communities to support the implementation of the above proposed actions.

[1] Global Environment Centre (GEC), 7A, Jalan 19/29, 46300 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
Tel: +603-79572007; Fax: +603-79577003; Email: david@genet.po.my; Website: www.gecnet.info