Mongabay Haze Beat – Ely Marlina's 2-year-old child began to cough as the wildfires enveloped Indonesia's Ketapang district in the summer of 2019. The little one soon fell ill with an acute respiratory tract infection and was later diagnosed with pneumonia. A 20-minute drive away in a nearby village, Maimun, 43, endured an anxious fortnight as her mother lay in the hospital with lung disease.
"The sky was red; I couldn't see the sun," Maimun told Mongabay of the 2019 wildfire crisis. "The weather was incredibly hot. It was worse in the morning – the haze was extraordinary."
As smoke darkened Ketapang, Maimun watched over her children at home, who lost their right to education for three weeks as air pollution shuttered local schools. Visibility was just 20 meters (65 feet) outside as Maimun traveled to the hospital to visit her mother.
"As homemakers, we felt the most impact," Maimun said.
Research shows women and children are already disproportionately exposed to ambient air pollution, owing primarily to the indoor burning of fuels in Indonesia's rural areas.
Outside the home, children under 5 are more susceptible to wildfire smoke because they take more breaths and have yet to develop robust immune defenses.
UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund, estimated that around 2.4 million children aged under 5 lived in areas of Indonesia worst affected by haze in 2019.
"We've been through quite a lot of fire disasters around here," said Karmele Llano Sanchez, director of Yayasan IAR Indonesia (YIARI), the Indonesia affiliate of International Animal Rescue, a conservation charity established in 1989.
"Especially in 2019," Sanchez added. "It was pretty horrendous, and since then we have all been quite traumatized by the fires."
In 2022, Ely, Maimun and dozens of other women from around Ketapang, in the Indonesian part of Borneo Island, got together and formed a unit, called "the Power of Mama," supported by YIARI to tackle the wildfire crisis plaguing their community.
The Power of Mama
The use of fire is deeply rooted in land cultivation in Indonesia owing to its low cost and speed. Fire is also destructive to pests, and burning biomass can transfer nutrients back to the soil.
However, fires have posed increasingly serious risks to health and environment ever since the plantation industry dissected Indonesia's peatlands with canals to dehydrate the landscape, which is necessary to plant acacia and oil palm trees.
Peat accounts for about 3% of the world's land area, but peat stores more carbon than all other vegetation combined, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organization based in Switzerland.
"When you use slash-and-burn around peatlands, it causes fires that are quite difficult to stop," Sanchez said.
Sanchez had the idea for Borneo's first women's firefighting squad after a local farmer set a fire to clear a tract of land.
YIARI staff asked the man to extinguish the fire, but the farmer ignored them – they asked local authorities to intervene, with the same result.
"But then we told his wife," Sanchez told Mongabay. "She told him off, and he put out the fire."
Following that encounter, Sanchez and colleagues began work on an innovative way to address the region's problem with fire.
"We had never really involved women in fire prevention strategy," Sanchez said. "How could we get women in the community involved in sort of fire protection unit? And at the same time we knew these two amazing women – Ibu Maimun and Ibu Siti."
Siti lives in Pematang Gadung village and had wanted to farm but lacked access to capital, so she took a job as a cook at a nearby gold mine.
"My heart was moved there after seeing the environment around Pamatang Gadung village destroyed," she told Mongabay.
Siti started out on her own initiative making compost for farmers to use as fertilizer. In 2022, she became a founding member of the Power of Mama, together with Maimun. Today the organization has expanded to six villages in three subdistricts in Ketapang.
"Most, maybe even all, of these women have overcome adversity, poverty and marginalization," said Spynozar Maizar, legal coordinator at YIARI.
Mothers of invention
The Power of Mama volunteers patrol fire-prone areas of Ketapang in shifts. Every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., volunteers are on patrol during Borneo's dry season, Siti told Mongabay.
In the rainy season the group pivots to outreach, encouraging farmers to stop using fire and adopt alternative methods to bring nitrogen back into the soil.
The women also assist in mangrove rehabilitation and give talks to children on the importance of careful management of land that continues to change around them.
"These women were completely unnoticed, but now people are seeing them and noticing that they play a very important role in society," Sanchez said.
Challenges emerged early. In the early days of the project, a group on patrol came across a fire but lacked equipment to solve the problem. Thinking on her feet, one of the Power Of Mama volunteers grabbed the group's drinking water and started pouring it over the land.
"That obviously didn't put out the fire," Sanchez said.
The rookie firefighters then found themselves marooned in the middle of nowhere, without water, on a sweltering day surrounded by smoke.
"They keep telling the story over and over again – and they laugh their heads off," Sanchez said.
"It's constant love and so much fun," Sanchez said. "They are so eager to be seen, and to know people, and to do stuff that is not just cooking for their families."
Maimun's team can now draw on a water pump, fire hose and portable tank that her patrol can use to fight fires. Siti sometimes uses a drone while on patrol, she said.
The Power of Mama is modeled differently from the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA), community firefighting units comprising – almost entirely male – volunteers drawn from villages. MPA units are tasked mainly with extinguishing wildfires, while the Power of Mama is geared more toward prevention.
"This shows that women do indeed have the same abilities as men," said Alimatul Qibtiyah, a professor and commissioner of Indonesia's National Commission on Violence against Women, known as Komnas Perempuan.
However, Alimatul added that domestic and caring responsibilities remained the charge of women in Indonesia, and that women face excessive burden if men do not participate in work in the home.
"The response from the community has always been positive," Maimun said. "For the men, maybe they are blushing a bit because they feel the women are doing all this and they just watch and listen."
The Power of Mama patrols areas a short distance south of Sentap Kancang, a tract of rainforest in Ketapang that is home to one of Indonesia's largest orangutan populations.
Data from Global Forest Watch, a remote sensing platform operated by the World Resources Institute, showed Ketapang district lost a third of its tree cover in just the last two decades. However, the rate of deforestation has slowed over recent years.
"We have come a long way with the protection of orangutans in this area," Sanchez said, adding that YIARI had seen a "very sharp reduction" in the number of rescues, both from the pet trade and due to land clearing.
"One of the threats that remains is the threat of forest fires," Sanchez said. "We know peat forests are a very important habitat for orangutans, and we know they are very prone to fires."
A study published in July showed Bornean orangutans exposed to wildfire smoke called less frequently and demonstrated impaired vocal quality, which are believed to be central to the primates' mating patterns.
During the 2015 Southeast Asia haze crisis, almost half a million hectares (1.2 million acres) of tree cover were lost to fire in Ketapang, according to Global Forest Watch data.
In 2019, there were more than 1,000 fire alerts in Ketapang district, according to data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a remote sensing platform owned and operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US.
YIARI is now expanding its existing work with several farmers' groups focusing on building capacity. Supporting farmers to intensify production on the same land is central to the fire prevention strategy, as clearing new land without machinery can be prohibitively labor-intensive – or dangerous if using fire.
The project emphasizes the use of compost fertilizer and aims to boost farmers' incomes by raising productivity on existing land.
"For me, it's not all about putting out fires, and it's not all about fire prevention," Sanchez said. "It's about seeing these women becoming more confident and playing a role in their societies."
YIARI now plans to study the impact of the Power of Mama on the ground. Since the team was established last year, the Power of Mama has expanded to six villages in Ketapang and counts 92 women volunteers.
Ely Marlina joined the Power of Mama in part because of her personal experience tending to her child during the 2019 disaster.
"A lot of children that year were affected by respiratory disease due to the land fires," she said.
Ely's child recovered from pneumonia in 2019, but the disease kills around 19,000 children under 5 every year in Indonesia, according to UNICEF.
"I think we have done our best to prevent fires," Siti told Mongabay. "We believe we have made a difference."
Erb, W. M., Barrow, E. J., Hofner, A. N., Lecorchick, J. L., Mitra Setia, T., & Vogel, E. R. (2023). Wildfire smoke linked to vocal changes in wild Bornean orangutans. iScience, 26(7), 107088. doi:10.1016/j.isci.2023.107088