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27 March 2017
Sun Indicates Bright Outlook for Fire Free Alliance

“Here are companies going beyond business-as-usual, beyond CSR, beyond the baseline; these companies are prepared to step up.”

Dorjee Sun is founder and director of Carbon Conservation which recently completed its second annual independent review of the APRIL-initiated Fire Free Village Program (FFVP) in Riau province.  In conducting the review, Sun visited villages participating, met senior officials of the province, and conducted interviews with village leaders and members of local communities.

As the Fire Free Alliance (FFA) marks its first year anniversary, Sun speaks about the importance of its work and focus going forward.

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Q. What impact has the FFA had on the scope and impact of fire prevention in Indonesia? 

Sun: Any program which goes from just the nine villages under the APRIL FFVP in 2015 up to 77 directly engaged or more than 200 (in fact 218) in terms of awareness and reach in one year – thanks to the creation of FFA – well, that’s an amazing result and it’s down to the simple mechanism of collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

Previously everyone was in silos doing their own fire prevention and fire management; now they can see the most effective or lowest cost way of reducing,  preventing fire and managing fire.

In 2017, FFA added two new members, Sime Darby and IOI Group, which is something to be proud of.  Like the other members, they are global leaders but fire prevention is not a core business so it makes sense that the FFA pools knowledge as opposed to everyone wasting money on possibly making the same mistakes.

The other significant development has been the participation of IDH and PM. Haze. NGOs provide a direct connection between grassroots community groups and frontline agricultural groups so rather than wasting energy in fighting or arguing, there is a forum to meet regularly to communicate.

Q. How would you characterise the significance of the FFA as an example of companies working together?

Sun: It’s significant because I think the existing culture among a lot of Asian agricultural businesses is not one of collaboration. That’s a complete contrast to looking at, say, Silicon Valley companies where it’s all about start-up, open-source, transparency and collaboration. So FFA was a big breakthrough because there was actually one player in APRIL which was  prepared to take the leap of faith and  share knowledge. Suddenly, instead of being competitors,  these agribusiness companies are allies in stopping the fires.

Secondly,  when you look at problems like these fires, there are so many victims,  in many cases, nobody is certain who owns the land that is being burned and there are so many ways to push off responsibility. Yet here are companies going beyond business-as- usual, beyond CSR, beyond the baseline; these companies are prepared to step up.

I think that’s a big thing because there are many corporations which may be responsible for trillions of dollars of environmental damage or pollution and yet shirk their responsibilities. In the  FFA, we have these companies who could say “it’s not our problem because we’re not in control of that land”  but  they still are prepared to do something about it.

Q. How do you see the role of the FFA further evolving within FFVP? How much can it grow? 

Sun: I think the next phase  should be to bring on more company partners as we’ve seen recently with the addition of Sime Darby and IOI. Then it will be about internally getting more skilled contributions from the alliance members. In the first year, APRIL obviously has been leading because it has the most experience but going forward it should be about more equal-footed collegial sharing. 

Another issue is whether the FFA can bring in non-agricultural players. For example, sovereign wealth money, international aid organisations and banks could provide the funding to build on the achievements of FFA.  Maybe even an airline which might be losing tourism dollars because of the haze, can become involved with fire-free villages. So the question is can we bring external parties into the program and the funding collective? That’s how it has to evolve.

Q.  How important is the FFA to ensuring a fire-free future in the region? 

Sun: Ultimately the challenge is that we can lose momentum whenever there is no haze; so we must aim for that tipping point of awareness so that people culturally know they can’t start fires.

All the FFA companies have done tremendously well in raising awareness level.  When we can be sure that we have reached that tipping point that’s when FFA/FFVP will be looked back upon as the campaign that created a fire-free culture and future. Obviously the government has done a lot of good stuff including its new laws against burning and President Jokowi is doing a great job on this issue – but I think there is still that need for the private sector to put in the money and the education and awareness to drive it through. 

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Q. Could the concept be replicated elsewhere? 

Sun: It’s multilateral, multi-stakeholder, multi-pronged and comprehensive and so absolutely could be implemented to help address fires elsewhere. 

In developed countries like the US and Australia you have programs like ‘Smokey the Bear’, fire ratings, fire warnings and rural fire services providing education but nothing like the collaboration across companies and industry sectors that the FFA has developed. 

With its community-driven recruitment, rewards scheme, agri-assistance and education, I have not seen anything as comprehensive.  It’s a no-brainer to  have alliances like the FFA among companies elsewhere. We need more communication and cooperation not less.

Q. A further expanded FFA – and even similar initiatives elsewhere – would obviously require more funding. Can you see interest and a role for international funding?

Sun: When you look at a program such as FFA then I absolutely believe that it should be receiving international aid and multilateral money. 

The value of carbon markets can pay for  protection, conservation and reduction of emissions. Just look at 2015 when a gigatonne of carbon – the equivalent of the entire US economy – was emitted because international aid did not provide education and alternative livelihoods to give villages and villagers a way forward.

International aid can contribute to significantly scaling up this increasingly proven solution.

Dorjee Sun has been named among TIME Magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment”, the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders”, CPA Top 20 Business Leaders, Esquire Magazine’s “5 Gentlemen of Philanthropy”, and The Australian newspaper’s “Young Leaders”. The African Rainforest Conservancy honored Dorjee with an Earth Day Award and by naming after him a newly discovered blue spotted species of chameleon from the Tanzania rainforest – the “Kinyongia dorjeesuni”.

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