Logging linked to forest fires, says new report

Posted: 21 January 2002

Research in Indonesia has confirmed a long-suspected link between logging and the devastation of forest fires in tropical rain forests, writes Hilary Mayell.

Fires that ripped through East Kalimantan, Indonesia, in 1998 burned more than 12 million acres (5 million hectares) of land and forest. But the fire damage was by far the worst in areas that had been recently logged.

Using remote sensing, satellite imagery, and ground and aerial surveys, a team of German and Indonesian researchers found that the bulk of the area consumed by fire occurred in timber concessions, plantations, and on land converted to agricultural use and then left fallow. Almost two-thirds of the pulp wood plantations in East Kalimantan were destroyed by the fires. Less than one million acres (400,000 hectares) were in protected, and presumably pristine, forests.

Weakened ecosystems Tropical rain forests don't usually burn. In their natural state, fuel loads are low and not highly flammable, and the humidity is high even during drought years.

But Indonesia's rain forests have experienced the effects of heavy logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, resulting in weakened ecosystems. They have also experienced successive droughts, leading to fires in 1982-83, 1987, 1991, and 1994.

The drought that followed the 1997-98 El Niño was particularly harsh, said Florian Siegert, a professor at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany. The extent of fire damage that occurred in early spring of 1998 was unprecedented, he said. Siegert is the lead author on the study, which was published in the November 22 issue of the journal Nature.

Population pressure

The study confirms earlier suspicions that logging waste and dense undergrowth of fast-growing pioneer species provide large amounts of fuel that feeds the rampant spread of forest fires.

Pressure on Indonesia's rain forests has been building for 30 years. Government relocation programmes encouraged people to move from densely populated regions to less populated islands such as Borneo, where East Kalimantan is located. The increased population pressure has led to uncontrolled conversion of forest to agricultural use, which is done through slash-and-burn techniques. Non-indigenous islanders have also used fire for hunting, said Siegert. For example, "turtles live during the day usually in mud holes, where they are difficult to find," he said. "Fire forces them to come out, and then they can be easily collected."

Huge swathes of forest have also been cleared to make way for pulp wood and palm oil plantations. Much of the forest land that has been cleared is anchored in peat, which is a rich source of fuel for fires.

Peat fires

From 1996 to 1997 alone, nearly 2.5 million acres (one million hectares) of peat land was drained for a rice-growing project and then set on fire to clear the land, said Siegert. Peat fires set by plantation companies and transmigrants contributed enormously to the acrid cloud of smoke that hung over Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia in 1997, garnering international attention. Fires are also used as a "weapon" in land disputes between the plantation companies and local people who consider the land to be theirs. And then there's logging. Indonesia is one of the largest suppliers of tropical timber in the world. According to the World Bank, about 70 per cent of the timber is felled illegally.

The bank predicts that if current deforestation trends continue, lowland rain forests will become extinct in Sumatra by 2005, and in Kalimantan soon after 2010.

The Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR) has estimated that the current level of deforestation might be as high as 4.3 million acres (1.7 million hectares) a year.

Prevention strategies

Siegert said data acquired from the study was used to produce a "fire-risk" map showing the most vulnerable areas of forest, which can help policy makers establish fire-prevention policies and determine where to allocate fire-fighting equipment. Conservation groups have long been clamoring for a change in government policies regarding land conversion and logging in the tropical rainforests.

At a regional ministerial-level conference on forest law enforcement held in September 2001 in Bali, Indonesia signed on to an agreement to step up enforcement against illegal logging. But the situation is urgent, and conservationists are justifiably worried. "Unless land-use policies are changed to control logging and to introduce reduced-impact logging techniques, recurrent fires will lead to a complete loss of Borneo's lowland rain forests," the authors warn.

This is a slightly shortened version of Hilary Mayell's article, which first appeared in National Geographic News. It was distributed by Forest Conservation News published by the Forest Conservation Portal.Related links: