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[JAKARTA] Increasing land disputes between private concessionaires and local communities are undermining efforts to prevent forest fires in Indonesia, a researcher told last week’s (5-6 May) Forests Asia Summit 2014.
The underlying causes of this conflict must be addressed to get to the bottom of the increasing frequency of these devastating fires, Ahmad Dhiaulhaq, a conflict management researcher at The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) based in Bangkok, Thailand, argued during a panel discussion at the summit which was organised in Jakarta by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
In June 2013, forest fires from burning peat lands in Riau province in Sumatra choked the skies of Indonesia and neighbouring countries, leading to unprecedented air pollution levels in Singapore. Illegal burning broke out again in Riau in March this year, spiking to even higher levels than the haze crisis last year.
Dhiaulhaq pointed out during a conference session on “fire and haze” that incentives to control the forest fires may be undermined by unclear land tenure arrangements that pit communities living in the forests against investors who are given licences to develop the land.
To resolve these land-use conflicts, one possible solution that Dhiaulhaq suggests is mediation.
He says this basically involves setting up a third party to act as an independent go-between to aid the contending parties in settling their disputes. Such mediation, he says, can provide a platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue to achieve mutually acceptable solutions. He adds that mediation can build trust among conflicting parties and significantly reduce tension and intensity of conflict.
In an interview with SciDev.Net, Dhiaulhaq says: “The important thing is that the mediator should be accepted by both parties. To be successful, the mediation should not stop once the agreement is reached. The mediator should be involved in the implementation of the agreement as well as the mediator can help in the monitoring and evaluation when the agreement is implemented.”  
But Dhiaulhaq stresses that mediation is not enough. “It should be followed by policy changes because the problem of conflict stems from government policies,” he points out.
Petrus Gunarso, sustainability director at the Jakarta-based Asia Pacific Resources InternationalLimited (APRIL), a big fibre, pulp and paper firm, contends that the conflicting application of rules is one reason that worsens the fire and haze problem.
He cites Indonesia’s Law 32 that allows burning in forests for traditional uses. Gunarso says this raises questions about which communities can practice what can be considered as “traditional” uses or practices.  
“The law becomes confusing because it allows someone to engage in certain practices but does not allow somebody else to do the same thing,” he tells SciDev.Net.
Gunarso calls for collaboration on what he terms as short-term and long-term solutions to prevent forest fires. The short-term solutions, he says, include providing funding for fire prevention and firefighting while the long-term solutions cover proper licensing of private concessionaires and providing communities with alternatives to land clearing other than burning.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.