Must Indonesia's forests burn?

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author Info: Charlie Pye-Smith is a freelance writer, with a special interest in the environment.

For further information about the CIFOR/ICRAF study and the latest news about Indonesia's forests, visit the CGIAR website.

See also Trial by fire: Forest fires and forestry policy in Indonesia's era of crisis and reform, a report by the World Resources Institute.

In 1997/98 Indonesia experienced its worst forest and land fires in living memory. Some 10 million hectares were set ablaze, and a pall of acrid smoke enveloped much of Sumatra and Kalimantan, as well as neighbouring Singapore. Over 75 million people suffered, the economic cost may have been as high as $10 billion and carbon emissions were so great that turned Indonesia into one of the world's largest polluters. Here Charlie Pye-Smith brings the story up-to-date.

The annual fires in Indonesia in 2000 were much like those of 1999. The vast majority of hot spots - fires detected by satellite - were small, controlled fires which caused little smoke and haze, most set by farmers clearing scrub and grass. Much more significant - in terms of haze and damage to the forest - were smaller numbers of larger fires set by estate crop companies clearing land.

However, relatively little smoke drifted over Singapore and Malaysia, as happened during the catastrophic fires of 1997/98, and consequently the fires elicited less in the international press. But next year, or the year after, another El Nino-related drought is expected, and the country may well have to cope with massive fire problems once again.

There had been other bad years before, most notably in 1982/3, when the 'Great Fire of Borneo' destroyed some 3 million hectares of forest. This was largely attributed by the government to the reckless behaviour of smallholders, whereas in 1997/98 the media and the government pointed an accusatory finger at big business, and especially at plantation companies. But the picture is far from simple. "Nowadays people tend to blame the palm oil plantations for the fires," says Grahame Applegate at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, "but that's not the whole story. In some areas it's nothing to do with them." While plantation owners were mostly to blame for fires earlier this year in North Sumatra, smallholders were responsible for many of the fires and much of the smoke in South Sumatra and Lampung Province in 1997/98. During the same period large landholders and companies with logging concessions caused almost half the fire damage in East Kalimantan.

Over 35 internationally-funded fire projects were set up after the 1982/83 fires, but most have tackled the symptoms rather than the cause. With a view to helping the authorities tackle the fire problem better in the future, CIFOR and the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) are currently investigating the underlying cause of the fires. So what exactly do we know? In 1997/98 nature and man conspired to devastating effect. The El Nino Southern Oscillation - a cyclical warming and cooling of the Eastern Pacific - brought drought conditions to Indonesia, rendering forests on peaty soils especially vulnerable to fire. At the same time the price of palm oil increased, and plantation developers in Sumatra and parts of Kalimantan, eager for land, deliberately burnt large areas of forest.

Fighting with fire

It was a different story in other parts of Kalimantan. Rona Dennis, CIFOR's remote sensing analyst, is using satellite imagery and participatory mapping exercises carried out with local people to evaluate the extent and cause of the fires. "For centuries people used fire as a tool, to help them hunt, to clear land, to bring on a flush of fresh growth," she says, "but we've found that fire is increasingly being used as a weapon." Not just against the forest, but against people too, and especially against the plantation developers. In areas where there are disputes over land tenure competing interests will use fire against one another.

Significantly, the Dayak forest dwellers of Kalimantan, who traditionally use fire to clear plots of land for shifting cultivation, refrained from burning forests in 1997/98: they knew drought made it too dangerous. However, many transmigrants were not so knowledgeable and set fires which swiftly escaped out of control into large swathes of forests. Not all is doom and gloom. Some logging companies are now removing debris from logged forests - debris acts as kindling for the fires - and some plantation companies are operating a zero-burn policy as a part of their site preparation. All the same, poor management continues to threaten Indonesia's forests, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

"The fact is," says Applegate, "Indonesia shouldn't have a major forest fire problem." Unlike areas outside the tropics, Indonesia doesn't have strong winds to fan the flames, and the humidity is always high. According to Applegate, 80 per cent of the smoke in 1997/98 came from the burning of forest residues on peaty soils. Ban that - and make the ban stick - and the haze problem would be well on the way to being solved.