The destruction of peatlands and forest fires are closely linked, because clearing and draining peatlands for oil palm and pulpwood plantations are major causes of Indonesias recurring fire and haze crises.
Last year, haze produced by forest fires impacted the health of thousands of people in South-East Asia, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan Islands, and cost Indonesias economy an estimated $16.1 billion, according to data from the World Bank.
And this year, Indonesia remains haze free, after two decades of experiencing annual forest fires that triggered haze and chocking much of the public, Environmental Affairs and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya has confirmed.
"For the first time, in 2016, we did not experience major forest fires, thanks to the joint hard work of many in the regions. The number of hotspots decreased by 80 to 92 percent, according to the NOAA and Terra satellite methods," the minister said on Dec 10, 2016.
The government has set up an integrated forest fire control team comprising, among others, military and police officers, as well as a preventive and early detection mechanisms to curb forest fires.
Additionally, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), under Presidential Regulation No. 1 of 2016, dated January 6, 2016, established BRG to prevent forest fires, particularly those affecting peatlands, and to restore areas destroyed by fires.
The president ordered the body to draft an action plan to immediately demonstrate to the world that Indonesia is serious about handling the destruction caused to peatland areas.
Jokowi has appointed Nazir Foead as chief of the new agency, describing him as a competent and experienced figure. The agency is a non-structural body under the president and is answerable to him.
Indonesias peatlands are estimated to cover an area of 20.6 million hectares, or about 10.8 percent of Indonesias total land area, of which some 7.2 million hectares, or 35 percent, is located on Sumatra Island.
Peat is partially decayed, dead vegetation, which has accumulated over thousands of years. It is typically saturated with water and, therefore, virtually impossible to set on fire.
Peatlands help to preserve water resources, mitigate flooding, prevent sea water intrusion, support biodiversity, and control the climate through the absorption of carbon and storage.
But when peatlands are cleared to make way for plantations, as they are for palm oil, pulp and paper, carbon-rich peat becomes tinder dry and vulnerable to fires.
BRG has set a target of restoring between two and three million ha of peatland areas.
The task is being carried out through cooperation with several institutions and ministries, such as the environmental affairs and forestry ministry, the public works and housing ministry, the agriculture ministry, the agrarian and spatial layout ministry, and the National Development Plan Agency (Bappenas).
In the first stage, the agency has initiated on-field activities to restore over 800,000 hectares (ha) of peatland areas spread across four districts - Meranti Islands in Riau; Ogan Komering Ilir and Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra; and Pulang Pisau in Central Kalimantan.
"The (restoration) cost is estimated to reach Rp12 million per ha for five years," BRG Head Nazir Foead informed the press in March 2016.
Additionally, the government has imposed a moratorium on the clearing of land in peatland areas, in line with new government regulation (PP) No. 57/2016 on the revision of PP No. 71/2014 on Peat Ecosystem Management and Protection.
The revision ruled that there should be no land clearing and no issuance of new licenses in peatland areas, especially for deep peatland, Secretary General of the Environmental Affairs and Forestry Ministry Bambang Hendroyono said in early December 2016.
Signed by President Jokowi on Dec 2, 2106, regulation no 57/2016 also states that no drainage should be performed, as it causes the peat to dry out, and no fires can be set in peatland areas. Even traditional communities have been barred from setting fires in peatland areas.
The new PP places a permanent moratorium on peatland exploitation, stating that everyone is prohibited from clearing new land until a zoning system for the protection and cultivation of the peatland ecosystem is in place.
"PP No. 57/2016 shows the solid commitment of President Joko Widodo to the protection of peatland ecosystems," stated San Afri Awang, who works with the Forestry Planology and Environmental Management section of the Environmental Affairs and Forestry Ministry.
Natural succession, rehabilitation, and restoration are ways of improving the peatland ecosystem. "Natural succession means restoration without any human intervention," he explained.
In addition to the regulation, the government will also intensively monitor peatland restoration efforts.
Minister Siti Nurbaya has issued an assignment letter to San Afri, placing him in charge of a peatland restoration monitoring team.
"The government is very serious (about this). We will monitor it continuously and impose sanctions against violators. This is proof of the governments serious commitment to peatland restoration," Awang added.
As a long term program, BRG has developed innovative technologies to consistently maintain the moisture of peatland in three provinces.
"We ensure the optimal protection of peatland in several Indonesian regions using sophisticated technology developed by the nations experts," Foead stated, after accompanying President Jokowi to visit a peatland site in Pulang Pisau District, Central Kalimantan Province, on Dec 21.
The agency will install the technology to measure water levels and humidity in peatland areas.
The data will be uploaded every hour to the BRG data center, where the technology is managed by the Agency for Study and Application of Technologies, and Hokkaido University of Japan.
If the Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency anticipates a lack of rain in the coming days, the BRG will irrigate the peatland area to maintain its optimal humidity, he explained.
The peatland agency will become involved with the local community and authorities in its efforts, he said, adding that maintaining peatland humidity is crucial to prevent fires, since dried peatland is prone to fire.