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In 2008 Helmi learned a very expensive lesson. Seeking a quick way to clear some land for farming, he lit a fire. The fire quickly spread out of control and engulfed neighbouring land, causing significant damage before it was extinguished.

For setting the fire in Kuala Tolam Village in Indonesia’s Riau province, Helmi was fined IDR20 million, and he and his wife had to sell their gold in order to meet the bill. At that moment he vowed that in future he would work to protect the forest.

Helmi’s story is not unusual. Fire has been used to clear land for generations by local communities lacking access to finance and modern equipment. As well as being quick and cheap, the ash from the destroyed forest acts as a fertiliser. But fires can easily spread out of control, particularly in the dry season, leading to events like the 2015 haze which blanketed much of the region in smoke and cost Indonesia almost two percent of its GDP, according to the World Bank.

Helmi got his chance to make a difference when the Fire Free Village Program (FFVP) was brought to Kuala Tolam Village by APRIL Group. FFVP is a program to provide education, equipment and economic incentives to prevent fires being started in the first place.

Today, Helmi is a crew leader with the FFVP team, in charge of preventing forest and land fires in his village. Helmi's main job is to educate the public about the dangers of clearing land by burning and to raise awareness and acceptance of FFVP.

Every day Helmi along with village officials visit homes in the area to educate locals on the program. They also conduct patrols along the Kampar River by boat, to ensure there are no active fires in the area.

"I describe my experience to the community, so they will not burn the land anymore. In the past, I burned the land, and now it's my turn to prevent fire," Helmi said

Initially, it was not easy for Helmi to gain acceptance for the program. Clearing land using fire was an entrenched practice and it was hard to change mind-sets. "I was rejected by the local community. They said I'm a hypocrite, because I used to do the same thing,” he said.

“But gradually, the community began to understand that land acquisition by burning is wrong and they have much to lose," he said.

Thanks to the performance of Helmi and the FFVP team of Kuala Tolam village, the village has been free from fire since it joined the program in 2016.

Aside from cleaner air, the community has benefitted from fire free rewards under FFVP, earning assistance of IDR50 million which has been used on public infrastructure, such as a new market.

"Alhamdulillah last year we’ve got the award for successfully keeping our village free from fire. In 2017, as of now, there has not been a single fire – not even a tiny sign of one – in Kuala Tolam village," Helmi explained.

According to Helmi, Fire Free Village Program has brought many positive benefits. Not only does it fund important infrastructure, but it benefits the health of the community.

"If fire can be prevented then it can be beneficial for health, because there is no more smoke that will interfere with our breathing," said Helmi. "Hopefully with the addition of the regulation from the government, more people will not dare to burn anymore," said the father of two children.

 
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