Fires are one of the biggest risks to Borneo’s forests, its people and wildlife. This passionate group of all-women firefighters are stamping them out
Every dry season, fires wreak havoc on the environment and the lives of the people who live in southwestern Borneo. The forests here, which once covered the world’s third-largest island almost entirely, are among the most biodiverse on the planet. They are home to 15,000 species of plants, 420 species of birds and 230 species of mammals, including the critically endangered orangutan.
But between 1973 and 2015, half of Borneo’s forests were lost to intensive logging, changing weather patterns (particularly during El Niño years), and poor agricultural practices. Wildfires, often triggered by slash-and-burn agriculture (a technique used by smallholders in many developing countries) and fuelled by rising temperatures and extremely dry dry seasons, are particularly rampant in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province. Here, fires can spread undetected through the tropical peatlands.
But, on the fringes of the forest, a group of women are tackling the problem – and redefining their roles within their communities at the same time. In villages where womens’ roles have traditionally been to quietly nurture family, these extraordinary women – known collectively as the ‘Power of Mama’ – are leading their communities towards a more sustainable future.
Power of Mama is a community-led fire-prevention initiative that comprises 50 women in two villages in West Kalimantan, Borneo. Until recently, few in the programme had ever had a job outside of raising family, but now they are working on the frontlines of forest conservation and protection.
Trained in basic fire-fighting methods and armed often with drones and smartphones, the women travel by motorbike to scout for undetected fires. They also work intensively to prevent fires by educating their communities and encouraging farmers to reject the slash-and-burn agricultural practices that put villagers’ health, lives and livelihoods at risk every dry season.
“I am really, really proud of these super-motivated women,” says Dr Karmele Llano Sanchez, who co-founded the programme and is the director of YIARI, which is the Indonesian partner of charity International Animal Rescue. “They are protecting the environment and entire communities; they are needed, valued and feel empowered. I am determined to keep supporting them and to scale the programme to include more women in more villages. With the return of El Niño this year we are expecting to have a bad dry season, which will likely result in more fires.
Borneo’s peat swamp forests store around 500 tons of carbon per hectare, and in a year of particularly bad fires these ecosystems can release up to 2bn tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. To put that into context, the UK emitted around 505m tons of CO2 equivalent between 2020 and 2021.
While these fires devastate the natural environment, they ravage human lives, too. During the dry season, Borneo’s air quality frequently plummets as the region is engulfed in a lingering haze of smoke that affects the respiratory systems of children and the elderly in particular; airports and schools are forced to close for days; hospitalisation rates increase, and death tolls surge.
It is from the ashes of these fires that the Power of Mama has risen. “In 2015 and 2019 we suffered particularly devastating wildfires – many of which had been started intentionally by slash-and-burn farmers,” says Llano. As YIARI is committed to protecting primates and their habitats, it had been trying to encourage farmers to stop using fire to clear their fields.
“Often they didn’t listen to us – but I realised that they did listen to their wives … and that was where Power of Mama began,” says Llano. “Two women – Ibu Siti and Ibu Maimun – were already working with YIARI and were the first to volunteer to go out on patrol and talk to farmers. They are well- respected in their community; people listened to them and they were able to get swift responses from authorities when fires were detected – and it was they who put the first two teams of women together in 2021.”
Although the women receive no remuneration for their time, their commitment is strong, and women in other villages are now waiting for groups to be set up in their areas. Kristina Iyun Candra K, 42, is one of the volunteers from Sukamaju village, and says that she has become more confident in her community, where they have come to be known as the ‘ladies in the red shirts’, and learned a lot about protecting the environment. “We feel we have a role in teaching people to be better,” she says. “Another interesting part is we can learn how to organise.”
Llano’s expectations, meanwhile, have been exceeded. “They are well respected by their community members, and work exceptionally hard in preventing fires. The fact that these women have been hidden behind kitchen doors for so long doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to do this job. They are outstanding.
The Power of Mama programme was established by YIARI, Indonesian partner of International Animal Rescue, and is also supported by The Orangutan Project and Orangutan Outreach. It takes a holistic approach to protect biodiversity, preserve and replenish rainforests, and empower local communities. In order to fund projects like these, International Animal Rescue has launched Guardians of the Forest. A community of empowered people who believe there is hope in action, Guardians support projects like Power of Mama as well as each other to be more ‘guardian’ in everyday life.
Images: Muffidz Ma’sum