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The Burning of Indonesia - An Ecological Catastrophe Unfolds

27-September 1997 Daytime satellite map shows haze and site of fires emphasized at foot of Sumatra. Environmentalists monitoring satellite pictures of the sprawling archipelago said between 500,000 and 600,000 ha [the final count became 5,000,000 ha] was burning or had already been destroyed. The head of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Dr. Syed Babar Ali, called it an international catastrophe. This burning is an intentional opportunity coinciding with drought from El Niño.

Continuing peat bog fires are believed to be likely to emit as much CO2 as all of Western Europe over the next year.

The Neighbour from Hell New Scientist

232 people died when a Garuda flight to Medan crashed in thick smoke killing all on board.

JAKARTA September 1997

President Suharto apologised yesterday for raging bush fires in Indonesia which have blanketed neighbouring countries in a choking haze. He told South-East Asian environment ministers that Indonesia was doing its "level best to prevent and overcome the on-going bush and forest fires raging in our country". The meeting of ministers from the nine-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was originally due to be held in eastern Indonesia but was moved to Jakarta, itself heavily polluted by the smoky haze and vehicle exhaust. The Government decided to switch the whole four-day conference to the capital so ministers would not be seen to be meeting in pristine conditions on Sulawesi Island as forest fires raged elsewhere. The issue may prove sensitive for the regional grouping, which traditionally shuns any moves considered to be interference in each other's internal affairs. But the severity of the problem is expected to make it a major issue along with topics such as climate change, clean water and the movement of hazardous waste. The main fires are burning on the western Indonesian island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan on Bomeo, producing thick haze which is blanketing Singapore and much of the Malaysian peninsula, including the capital Kuala Lumpur. The problem is compounded by industrial pollution and by extended drought in Indonesia.


Flight to Medan crashes in thick smoke killing all 232 on board.
Ship collision divides one cargo ship in two. It sinks in minutes leaving 5 survivors.

Some Indonesian airports have been forced to close for periods due to lack of visibility. Malaysia's environment ' depa,rtment said the pollution had reached hazardous levels in Kuala Lumpur yesterday morning an-dd signs that public pressure is mounting on the Goveniment to solve the problem. Residents walked the streets in an eerie twilight with handkerchiefs and masks pressed to their faces. REUTERS

Greed Fuels Disaster of World-wide Proportions

The fires in South-East Asia are a world disaster caused by indifference to pollution, powerful multinationals, lack of law enforcement, and official corruption. Fuelling it is unfathomable greed.

David Harrison Observer Environment Editor.

The causes of the pollution disaster in South-east Asia are many but the biggest is greed. Human greed. For years giant logging companies have plundered the forests of Indonesia with impunity, swellng their profits and moving on. Greed. In their wake came plantation owners and farmers who wanted to clear the brush to grow lucrative palm oil and other crops. They could have bulldozed or burned the debris. They chose to burn, because it was cheaper and faster. Greed. But without the logging companies, who had chopped down the big trees and built the roads, they could never have done it. "The timber industry must take a huge share of the blame," said Simon Counsell of the London-based Rainforest Foundation.

The consequences are like something from a futuristic disaster: hundreds of people reported killed as the fires spread uncontrollably from Bomeo and Sumatra, throwing a deadly blanket of smog over 70 million people in six countries: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Thailand.

Satellite pictures show the fires have spread to one million hectares of deep peatlands where they may burn underground for years. The world faces a human and environmental catastrophe that will have a devastating effect on public health and change global climate more than the Mt St Helen's eruption in 1980 or Saddam Hussein's torching of the Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991. Some experts say the pollution could bring storms to Europe and the United States this winter. The Indonesian Government also stands accused of greed: granting concessions to timber companies to log one million hectares of forest a year, flouting its own rules on replanting. Allowing plantation owners and farmers to burn forests in breach of its own laws. All this on top of a lax attitude to air quality that even before the fires, had left residents of cities such as Kuala Lumpur exposed to harmful fumes. It seems incredible that this ecological nightmare could start in Indonesia where the rain forests are said to be richer than those in the Amazon. But the Indonesian Government has a lot to, gain from big logging companies enough to make them deaf to the pleas of environmental groups. Yet the disaster would not have happened were it not for another crucial factor. El Nino, the Weather phenomenon that has brought September rains to California and caused south-east Asia's worst drought in 50 years, delaying the rains that would douse the flames. Crucially, climatologists say, El Nino is occurring more often because of global warming. This can also be blamed on greed: of industries burning fossil fuels; of car-worshippers pumping out exhaust fumes; of Governments refusing to cut emissions. And the circle is complete - of logging firms whose rape of forests is reducing the Earth's abuity to absorb carbon dioxide. There are many victims of this greed, most obviously the region's inhabitants who are suffering the effects of smog - a word that does no justice to the murderous filth filling lungs from Sarawak to Sumatra with carcinogen-carrying particulates, condemning thousands of people to asthma, bronchitis, lung diseases, and, in the long-term, cancer and early death. The inhabitants include indigenous tribes who have lived -in Indonesia's forests for thousands of years, using small-scale slash-and-burn, have been forced out of their homes by logging companies. Now they are being poisoned as well.

Environmental groups have been arguing for years that timber firms cannot be given carte-blanche to raze the world's forests. But there is no global policeman to stop their orgy of destruction. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, Governments promised to do more. The Rio Plus Five summit in New York this year noted little change and promised improvements. But, despite intensive lobbying, the United Nations has failed to deliver a Global Forest Agreement that would introduce enforceable intemational standards. Instead things have got worse. A report last year by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, said the industry was "running out of control", fuelled by greed, corruption and the world's insatiable demands for timber and paper. It named the 17 worst offenders, including Mitsubishi and America's Georgia Pacific. Daishowa of Japan and Musa of Indonesia were accused of corruption, and six firms, including Hyundai of South Korea and Malaysia's Samling, of illegal practices. Logging companies were using their power to undermine national forestry bodies, especially in poor countries, the agency said. Many cleared entire forests and moved on. Others replaced them, witheucalpytus. "Few industries can rival the short-termism of the timber trade," said Steve Trent, the agency's head of campaigns. The fires sweeping across parts of south-east Asia have also had less predictable consequences. The smog has apparently caused the collision of two cargo ships and may be to blame for the deaths of 234 people on an Indonesian Airbus that crashed just before landing in Sumatra though many remain unconvinced. There are fears for the region's Asian Tiger economies whose rapid growth had been jeqpardised by recent currency falls and economic slowdown. Analysts say the disaster will further erode confidence and hit industries including tourism, palm oil and the electronics sector. Psychologists expect a rise in the number of people suffering from depression. "Not seeing the sun and worrying about their health will have a horrendous psychological effect on vulnerable people," said London-based psychoanalyst Dr Paul Willams. The fires in South-east Asia are a disaster for the whole world and an inevitable consequence of its twisted values: indifference to pollution, powerful multinationals, lack of law enforcement, official corruption. And, fuelling it all, an inexhaustible, unfathomable greed.


A farmer set a fire while another burns behind.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian groups staged a rare demonstration yesterday demanding immediate and serious action to combat ihe smoky haze blanketing parts of South-east Asia. I Some 60 people gathered at Merdeka Square, the site of Malaysia's declaration of independence 40 years ago, protesting against a lack of action by the Governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to control the haze. Protesters shouted "Immediate Action! Immediate action!" during the hour-long rally. 'The rare protest came amid indications the haze may worsen before it gets better as Indonesian timber and plantation companies accelerate slash-and-bum activities before the Govenunent clamps down. The thick, choking smog, which has also affected Singapore, is blamed on smoke from thousands of brush and forest fires in Indonesia and industrial pollution. It has triggered health alarms and disrupted air and sea traffic. "We regret that the lack of firm and effective action by both Malaysian and Indonesian Governments to control the haze has resulted [in] serious health risk to many people," said Sanusi Osman, spokesman for.- the Group for Clean Air for the People. Indonesian fire officials said yesterday they had identified 167 r hot spots from blazes across the sprawling archipelago.

"Forest fires are still on. The fires have hit more than 80,000 ha throughout the country," said an official of the coordinating team for land and fires control. In the Sarawak capital of Kuching, the blinding haze has slowed life to a crawl. Kuching international airport reopened yesterday as conditions improved, but other airports in the timber rich-state remained closed, two days after a state of emergency was declared. The emergency declaration remained in force despite the pollution index easing to 366, which is officially classified as "hazardous," after reaching 655 on Friday. A reading of 500 triggers an emergency. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, will determine today whether to maintain the state of emergency in Sarawak. REUTERS

A young Indonesian mother and her son try to extinguish a blaze on their pepper plantation in East Kalimintan, Borneo.

Sept 24th KUCHING - The smog choking South-east Asia thickened dangerously in Malaysia's Bomeo state of Sarawak yesterday, cutting visibility in the capital, Kuching, to an arm's length. The air pollutant index rose to 839 at 11 am (3 pm NZ time). It read 781 at 3 am. Readings above 500 are considered extremely dangerous. The Information Minister, Mohamed Rahmat, said the state's two million residents may have to be evacuated if the pollution, caused by forest and bush fires in neighbouring Indonesia, "worsens further." A state of emergency was declared in Sarawak on Friday. "Visibility is so bad that I cannot drive any more. I cannot even see the lights ahead," a motorcycle rider said. Authorities declared the state of emergency after pollution readings topped 500. Schools, businesses and offices were shut, Kumin 'normally bustling Kuching into an eerie ghost town. Under the Malaysian system, above 500 are considered extremely dangerous. An index level of even 200- 300 for a day would be like , 20 cigarettes.

Air quality in most other parts of Malaysia remained unhealthy or very unhealthy yesterday. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, was in the very unhealthy zone. Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and parts of the Indonesian archipelago have been enveloped for weeks in the smoggy haze caused by the burning of huge tracts of bush and forest in Sumatra and the Indonesian half of Bomeo island. The fires are said to have been set by plantation owners who are clearing land. Newspapers said yesterday that more than 5000 people in Sarawak alone had reported to hospitals with pollution-related illnesses. Authorities in Jakarta have said at least 20 million Indonesians have been affected with eye, skin and respiratory problems, mainly in southem Sumatra and the eastem half of Bomeo island.

27th September 1997 JAMBI - Your eyes sting. Your throat is sore. Wheezing follows coughing. You're lethargic and nauseous. Breathing is some- thing you no longer take for granted. The smell of burning penne- ates your clothes and your hair. Smoke is everywhere: in your house, the supermarket, the office and the factory floor. There is no sunshine and daylight has become dim. Visibility is less than 15 metres. Out-of-control scrub and forest fires surround Jambi on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. And thick brown smoke, known as "the haze," has made life almost unbearable for its 300,000 residents, as well as millions more across six countries in Southeast Asia. Jambi, about 6OOkm northeast of Jakarta, is at the centre of an ecological disaster which has shown no sign of abating. "I take cough medicine and wear a mask when I'rn outside," said Roy Pentihutay, an operator with the local telephone company. "But I still find it hard to breathe. My head feels dizzy." I The haze is so thick that smoke detectors in offices have been switched off after days of being triggered by the pollution.


The Aftermath: A smog-filled wasteland

In Irian Jaya, the remote western half of New Guinea govemed by Indonesia, thick smoke from jungle fires has stopped aircraft from delivering emergency supplies to remote villages where drought has withered food gardens and dried up wells and strea,ms. Officials, unable to reach some desperate conununities, say 265 people have died Of famine or from disease after drinking contaminated water. Health officials yesterday asked Jambi's only international standard hotel to reserve two floors for dozens of seriously ill respiratory patients and infants. The hotel's air conditioning sys- tem means it has the best air quality in tovrn. Meanwhile, almost everyone is praying for cleansing rain. "Allah will give us rain," said one of 600 faithful who gathered in Jambi's smoke-draped town square to pray for the monsoons to come. - AP, REUTERS

JAKARTA - Thick smog from raging bush fires covered large tracts of Indonesia yesterday as climatologists warned that the drought turning the nation's forests tinder-dry could continue for three months. Meteorologists in Jakarta said smog covered 22 cities on Sumatra island, in Kalimantan on Indonesia's side of Bomeo island, on Sulawesi island and in the remote eastem province of hian Jaya. A number of airports were closed. Malaysia said the smog also billowed back into the unhealthy range in Kuala Lumpur after a relative respite last week. 'On Friday, scattered local rains fell in several places, such as the northem paft of Sumatra, parts of Kalimantan, north of Sulawesi and Irian. But they were too small to lift the smog," said an official with Jakarta!s National Meteorology Bureau. 'We have expected heavy. rains to fall this month because of the rain clouds from the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In fact, dry winds coming from Australia are still dominant, which delay the rains," he said. UN climate experts in Geneva said rains in Indonesia could be delayed far beyond the normal start of the monsoon because of the El Nino phenomenon. Agricultural officials say the drought will affect production of key conunodities in Indonesia such as rice, coffee, tea, cocoa and palm oil. The Jakarta Post newspaper reported that the Government vowed to take strong legal action against forest bumers. Offlcials have estimated that the health of at least 20 million Indone- sians has suffered due to the smog, while millions more face health ilsks in neighbouiring countries. Nearly 100,000 cases of smog- related illnesses have been reported at Singapore chwcs in the past two months as a result of the smog. REUTERS

JAKARTA Ribbons of fire along irrigation channels designed to drain a huge peat bog are helping sustain noxious smog across Indonesia's Kalimantan provinces, forestry and agricultural experts said yesterday. A forest research agency said -the main pollution on Bomeo Island was now coming from fire in a huge area of peat covering about a million hectares that the Government has been draining for a massive rice-planting project. The drainage ditches themselves were on fire, sources said. A lot of what's burning is in peat. It's incredibly hard to out - very dirty smoke with of pollutants." said Neil Byron, of the Centre for Intemational Forestry Research at Bogor, near Jakarta. One source said: 'I'm told you can see ribbons of fire burning in drainage ditches they had dug." Bush fires mainly in Sumatra and on the Indonesian side of Bomeo Island have been responsible for choking haze that spread in recent months across large tracts of Southeast Asia. Agricultural sources said there was increasing concern over starvation in the area, which straddles the borders of South and -East Kalimantan provinces north- west of the town of Banjarmasin. Sources said the fire, caused in pazt by clearing the peat bog, could have destroyed the rice- planting project, which has been backed by President Suharto with the aim of ensuring Indonesia's self-sufficiency in the key staple rice. One source said the fire in the peat was creating a silicon layer impervious to water which could affect future irrigation vital for wet rice planting. Government officials said rain had fallen sporadically on Sumatra island at the weekend, and only three airports were closed on Tuesday due to poor visibility compared to five on Monday. "Smog has generally eased throughout Sumatra island, because of the rains on Sunday. We don't have reports of rains on Kalimantan yet and smog still persists there," an official at the forest fires control bureau in Jakarta said. On Sumatra, visibility in the town of Jarnbi - one of the worst hit centres in recent months - was down to 20 metres- Jakarta itself received its most heavy rainfall for months on Monday night, but the city of over 10 million people was blanketed in thick haze yesterday morning from its perpetual traffic pollution. "It rained last night in Jakarta - The haze which covers the city now is the result of pollution. What we now have to pay attention to is the possibility of floods in Jakarta," the fire control bureau official said. Mr Byron said it was difficult to give an exact estimate of the area affected by fires, but he said a rough estimate was 800,000 to one million hectares. The authorities have blamed plantation and forestry firms and small farmers for setting fires to clear land for planting. Byron said the worst affected areas appeared to have been logged over forest. From an economic and ecological point of view, "most of that forest is already dead, if not cremated". He said El Nino was likely to continue affecting Indonesia, now in the grip of its most serious drought in decades. REUTERS


Borneo shrouded in Smoke, Peat Forest

Peat Bogs outburn Western Europe New Scientist 18 Oct 1997

PEAT bogs in Indonesia that have been set alight by the country's raging forest fires could release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the next six months than all the power stations and car engines of Western Europe emit in a year. The finding backs up claims that the fires could have a significant impact on global warming.

Jack Rieley, a peat bog specialist at the University of Nottingham, and colleagues in Britain, France and the US, have concluded that a fifth of the estimated 600 billion tonnes of carbon stored in the world's peat bogs is in Indonesia. Rieley has now calculated that if these forested peat bogs continue to burn for six months, which is likely despite the onset of rains, they will release 1 billion tonnes of carbon. Western Europe's emissions are below 900 million tonnes a year. Estimates from satellite images suggest that the fires on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have affected about one million hectares of peat bogs. "if the fires establish themselves within the surface peat itself, they could lead to the loss of up to a metre of peat within six months," says Rieley. The Centre for International Forest Research, based at Bogor in Indonesia, backs Rieley's analysis. "Burn ing peat has far more severe environmental impacts than simply burning the annual accumulation of plant material," it says. Richard Lindsay of the University of East London, secretary of the International Mire Conservation Group warns: "if the fire gets deep into the peat, it could smoulder for several years." This is not the first time that fires in Indonesia's peat bogs have added to the atmospheric burden of C02. Half a million hectares bug lit for nine months between July 1982 and April 1983. The fires coincided with a surge in atmospheric C02, even though emissions from fossil-fuel burning were then at a six-year low. Fred Pearce

Species Diversity Loss Catastrophic in Indonesian Fires June 98 NZ Herald
140 species of butterfly are reduced to 4. 5 million hectares destroyed at last count

The Neighbour from Hell New Scientist 4 Oct 1997

Indonesia must be held to its promises on forest clearance

SUWIDO Limin, a biologist at the University of Palangkaraya in Indonesia, e-mailed New Scientist last Friday from the depths of the smoke clouds enveloping Southeast Asia. "Visibility is often less than 10 metres here. Smoke levels are over 30 times the permitted level. The city is completely isolated. There have bee no flights here for over a month. Over 8000 people are suffering from sore throats, headaches, eye irritation and stomach problems." Limin is certainly living n disaster zone. He says Smo pollution in the city, whic close to one of the major fire has reached 7.5 milligrams per cubic metres. This is substantially more than the great London smog of 1952, which peaked at 4-6 milligrams and killed an estimated 4000 people. Until now that smog had been regarded as the world's worst human-made air pollution disaster and it only lasted five days. This one has lasted for more than five weeks and shows little sign of dissipating. Forecasters predict the main rains will fall in December. So who is to blame? Limin did not mention it, but he must know that many of the fires are caused by his government's misguided land-use policies in the country's rainforests, the world's second largest after Brazil. Close to his city in central Kalimantan (the Indonesian sector of Borneo), work has just begun to clear a million hectares of forested peat bogs to make way for rice paddies. No matter that local people are being thrown off their land. No matter that an official environmental impact study found that 60 per cent of the land was unsuitable for paddies. No matter that the companies brought in to clear the forests do not have the firecontrol teams they are legally required employ, train and equip. Areas like Kalimantan and Sumatra are the new Wild West. They are creating their own frontier mythologies right now among the fires. In full view of the world, thanks to modern communications. Indonesia's immediate neighbours suffer too. Even down a TV tube, it is scary to watch smog that comes from a thousand kilometres away wafting among the skyscrapers of downtown Kuala Lumpur. Outside help in the form of firefighters and cloud seeding? Forget it. There is no way of reaching most of the fires, still less of controlling them. People talk about sending a few hundred firefighters to Borneo as if it were like the Isle of Wight. It is two thousand times bigger. These are not the first such fires in Indonesia. And this is not the first time that President Suharto has apologised to his neighbours and promised action. The best thing the rest of the world can do is make him keep his promises this time. That way lies real help for Limin and his 200 million fellow citizens, whose environmental rights, as much as their other human rights, have been trampled by Suharto's 30-year-old regime.

THE fires that have raged across Indonesia since late July and choked much of Southeast Asia can largely be blamed on the Indonesian government's land clearance policies. So claim scientists who have worked on field projects in the region. As the pall of smog continues to hang over Southeast Asia, Indonesia's President Suharto has apologised to neighbouring countries for the pollution. But scientists who work in the country claim that these are empty words. "The fires are a result of government policy," says Jack Rieley, a botanist at the University of Nottingham. Rieley is studying biological diversity in the massive peat swamps of Kalimantan, the Indonesian territory on the island of Borneo. He says the fires are linked to massive government-sponsored land clearance projects. "There is a hidden agenda not to stop the burning," says Rieley. "The fires will continue every year." One project, launched last year under what local papers called Suharto's "direct supervision", aims to clear forest for rice paddies from an area the size of Northern Ireland southeast of the city of PalangkarayaGovernment targets required the clearance of some 40 000 hectares of forest this year, and fire is the only practical method. "After the valuable timber, such as ramin, is cut down, the forests are just burned," says Susan Page at the University of Leicester, a colleague of Rieley's.

David Wall, a British researcher based in Jakarta who heads a European Union programme to improve the management of Indonesia's forest, adds: "In the last two or three years there has been an explosion of land clearing in Kalimantan and Sumatra for large-scale agricultural and forestry plantations. Use of fire for clearing has been banned by the President since August, but it still goes on merrily." Researchers working for the EU have found that some fires were started by farmers aggrieved that land they had farmed was taken over by plantation owners, many of whom were given land concessions as part of government development projects. "From village studies, we have found that a significant number of fires are set delib erately during land disputes," says Wall. Reports suggest that the fires are spreading across most of the major islands of Indonesia. In most years the fires would be out by now. But the seasonal rains have been delayed by the periodic climatic phenomenon known as El Niflo, which causes a long drought season in the Western Pacific. Major forest fires occurred in the region during the El NiAos of 1983,1991 and 1994. Part of the EU forestry aid programme, which began in 1995, covers fire prevention and control. But it has done little to hold back this year's inferno. One project, pin pointing fire "hotspots" using satellite images, has come completely unstuck. "The haze is so thick now that the hotspots are obscured," says Wall. Another strategy is to reduce the spread of fires by encouraging farmers to remove combustible crop residues from their fields after harvest. "We have proposed things like making compost and cultivating mushrooms," says the project head, John Makin of the Natural Resources Institute in Chatham, Kent. But after two years, the project has yet to run a pilot scheme. As people across Southeast Asia pray for rain, scientists warn that the smoke will delay any rainfall. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel prizewinning atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, told New Scientist: "The smoke particles will probably suppress precipitation. " First, the soot will create clouds with more, but smaller, water droplets, a type from which rain rarely falls. Second, the soot particles may warm the clouds, making them evaporate. Fred Pearce

The Economic Fallout

Indonesia has not been alone in the Asian finanical crisis, but the gung-ho corrupt system has. Indonesi is one of the worst hit and continues to suffer the poetic justice of its exploitive practices.

There have been food roits in Jakarta and calls for Suharto to stand down. The IMF managing director Michael Camdessus went ahead with demands for reform including closing several banks, ending a selection of government subsidies and monopolies some of which are held by Suharto's family members.

Other leaders such as Dr. Mahatir of Malaysia are in a not dissimilar position.

4th Feb 1998 The choking haze which blanketed South East Asia for much of 1997 has returned to Indonesia, reducing visibility and forcing cancellations or delays to airline flights.

Feb 28 1998 JAKARTA Worsening forest fires are ravaging parts of Indonesia, highlighting the Government's failure to act and the international community's inability to do anything about it. The fires in remote forest areas have "escalated to an extent that made it impossible even to think of getting them under control," said the head of a German-funded fire-fighting programme. 'The only thing that could help now is rain," said the Integrated Forest Fire Management Project chief Ludwig Schindler. The fires are worrying the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore, which are fearful of a repetition of the haze which choked South-east Asia last year. Asean environment ministers held a one-day meeting in the Malaysian city of Kuching yesterday to discuss joint measures against the fires. Malaysian Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding said the Indonesian fires had already affected parts of Sarawak state bordering East Kalimantan on the island of Bomeo. According to Mr Schindler: "The general situation can be described with Indonesia not being able to overcome its own bureaucracy and the international community being absolutely helpless and wasting money for the sake of having done something." The major fires that ravaged Indonesia from May to December last year, releasing toxic fumes across the region, caused losses worth $US 1.38 billion, the WorldWide Fund for Nature said yesterday. Damage estimated at $US 1 billion was sustained by Indonesia itself. Most of the fires were deliberately started by large agro-industrial firms to clear land for oil palm plantations or quick-growing trees for paper plants. Just a month after rains helped douse them, the fires have been deliberately restarted in the reserve forests of East Kalimantan. AFP

Fires in Indonesia New Scientist 21 Mar 98

THE forests of Indonesia are burning again. Last year's conflagration, the most expensive bonfire in history, was briefly doused by monsoon rains in December. But with the rains faltering early in the new year, the country's farmers and plantation owners have wasted no time in resuming their torching of the world's second largest region of rainforest The normally humid jungles of Indonesia are now tinder dry, and as the climate aberration known as El Nino goes into its second year, the drought looks set to Continue. -Everyone is taking advantage of the unusually dry conditions to set fires to clear land," says Ron Lilley of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Indonesia, who has visited the heart of the new fires. "There is so much dead wood around, much of it from trees killed by last year's fires, that I am afraid this year's will be even worse." Last year, as the fires were at their height, Indonesia's President Suharto called for the deliberate burning to stop.

But the appeal rang hollow, as many of his govemment's policies lead directly to large-scale forest clearance. Right now Indonesia is encouraging plantation owners to double the area of land under oil palms. Large areas of the peat bog forest of central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo-the source of much of the smoke from last year's fires-have been earmarked for conversion to rice growing. And with government policy keeping timber prices low, it is cheaper to burn the cleared trees than to harvest them. Some Indonesian politicians and foreign advisers are trying to prevent another disaster, but they face an uphill struggle. 'Fire is used to clear the land because it is quick and cheap," says David Wall, the director of a project funded by the European Union to advise the Indonesian goverrunent on how to prevent forest fires from spreading. Indonesia's landowners, like bad suburban neighbours, seem set to create another bonfire to choke Southeast Asia this summer.

Many outsiders have called for a ban on all cutting in the forests. But local forest scientists disagree. Burning is not necessarily bad, says Jeff Sayer, director-general t2 of the Center for Intemational Forestry Research (CIFOR), based in Bogor, 60 kilometres south of Jakarta. "Burning is a legitimate land management practice. In some ways it is preferable to other land clearing methods," says Sayer. A report on altematives to slash and bum written late last year by a group of Indonesian researchers with CIFOR and the lntemational Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) pointed out that "fire eliminates field debris, slows regrowth of weeds, reduces pest and disease problems, adds fertiliser in the form of ash, and loosens the soil to make planting easier." The problem, Sayer says, is not burning itself but "industrial burning" to clear land for plantations. "Slash and burn," the report on alternatives says, "worked well for smallhold farmers for centuries because communifies regulated the use of fires."

But that is not the sort of farming that dominates in Indonesia today Much of the country has been turned into a wild east", where swathes of forest are being cleared to make way for plantations of export crops, ranging from monoculture stands of timber to rubber trees and oil palms. "The past two or three years have seen an explosion in land clearing in Sumatra and Kalimantan for large-scale agricultural and forestry plantations," says Wall. The plan to double the area of land under oil palms to 5.5 million hectares by the year 2000 will involve clearing an area of forest the size of Wales. The government is also engaged in parallel pushes to maintain self-sufficiency in rice production for its 200 million people, and to keep the country a leading exporter of plywood and wood pulp. All these require the clearance of large tracts of forest. "Shifting cultivators burn one hectare, but plantation owners burn a thousand hectares at a time," says Emy Hafild, director of WALHI, a coalition of Indonesia's largest environment groups. According to the WWF, in the weeks after Suharto had exhorted companies to stop setting fires, "over a thousand new hot spots were identified on satellite images, each responsible for fire over an average of 200 hectares". The WWF argues that many of the fires were 'deliberate acts of defiance" by companies intent on meeting the agreed targets for land clearance.

Going for the burn

Tom Tomich, a natural resource economist with the ICRAF, who is also based in Bogor, identifies three types of fire: "Those set to clear land, those that accidentally got out of control, and those that were started deliberately as a weapon in social conflict." Lilley says that 'much of what is burnt is due to accidental spreading of fires because management is poor." But sometimes the spread may not be accidental. in many parts of the forest, the government is giving the big plantation companies concessions to clear and plant areas of forest that have traditionally been occupied and farmed by tribal groups and smallholders. "Some fires are deliberately left to get out of control to drive the small farmers out," says Lilley In retaliation, smallholders may burn trees planted by the interlopers. In this atmosphere of conflict, "fire is a powerful weapon for both planters and farmers", says Pedro Sanchez, director-general of ICRAF. Government ministers accept that plantation owners, industrial estates and govemment-sponsored transmigration landclearing projects were responsible for 80 per cent of last year's fires. But whoever starts them, fires running out of control have destroyed farms and areas rich in wildlife, burnt settlements, and laid siege even to large towns. The weather can take part of the blame. The islands of Indonesia are usually at the centre of a zone of intense convection currents, updrafts of hot air that create storm clouds.

But during El Nino years, when winds and ocean currents across the equatorial Pacific are reversed, this pattem breaks down. The waters around Indonesia, which are normally the warmest in the world, are cooled. With their main heat source diminished, the convection currents in the air above are suppressed. The result is virtually no rain from May to September, and much less rain than normal during the monsoon season from November to March. That has been the meteorological pattem behind major fires in the past two decades. In 1982 and 1983, when El Nino ran at full intensity into a second year, fires raged over an estimated 3.7 million hectares of east Kalimantan-an area bigger than Belgium. It was one of the most serious, and least reported, enviroronmental catastrophes of the decade, consuming almost twice as much forest as last year's fires.

Orphaned orangutan babies

Dire predictions

Meteorologists are predicting something similar for 1998. Last year's El Nino, which was the most intense of the century, will continue into the middle of this year before abating. It has dramatically reduced the rains in the current monsoon season, with fitful rains in December giving out in Kalimantan in early January. The scene was set for fires once again to rage through the forest. But damage to the rainforest is only a start. For every hectare of burnt land, a hundred hectares is engulfed by smoke. It was smoke, stretching from Thailand and the Philippines to New Guinea and the northern coast of Australia, that tumed last year's Indonesian fires from a local difficulty into an intemational scandal. Smoke affected people's health right across the region. An estimated 40,000 Indonesians suffered respiratory problems and up to a million people suffered eye irritations. Smoke was to blame for the shipping and plane crashes that killed close to 300 people. And smoke was responsible for most of the economic cost of the fires, which the WWF puts at around $20 billion. Tourist bookings in Southeast Asia fell by a third, and one estimate put the lost business to the Malaysian national airline alone at $2 billion. So why was there much more smoke this time than in past fires. Fire is normal in the forest, even in wet years. "Usually it dissipates quickly and there are no complaints," says Wall. Again, some of the blame can be laid at El Nino's door. Because it damps down normal convection currents, it traps smoke close to the ground. But that still leaves the question of why the fires in the El Nino years of 1982 and 1983 burnt more forest than last year's and yet produced much less smoke and far less international concem.

The answer can be found in satellite images captured during the height of last year's fires. They show that the two most intense sources of smoke were burning peat bogs in central Kalimantan and the Riau area of Sumatra. It was the buming of these bogs, rather than the overall extent of the fires, that led to the intense smoke in neighbouring countries. These peat bogs are Indonesia's last major undeveloped area, says ecologist Jack Rieley of the University of Nottingham, who has spent the past five years doing research in the swamps of central Kalimantan. "The bogs are flooded for most of the year," he says, "and for this reason do not have permanent human settlements.' The forested freshwater swamps contain important commercial tree species such as meranti as well as specialised swamp vegetation able to absorb oxygen through roots in flooded ground. They are important breeding grounds for fish, some of them endemic species, and refuges for rare reptiles and mammals including, says Rieley, possibly 2000 endangered orangutan. Now that is changing. In 1995, Suharto announced plans to clear a million hectares of forested peat bog-an area almost as big as Yorkshire-round the provincial town of Palangkaraya in central Kalimantan and turn it into rice paddy. "Gigantic canals are being constructed across the vast peatland landscapes for drainage and to provide irrigation for the rice fields," says Rieley The peat in these bogs, laid down in the 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age, is in many places 20 metres deep. These massive stores of organic material can burn for years, producing much more smoke than a conventional forest fire. For three months last year, Palangkaraya was a twilight world of fires and thick smog. University students had to organise firefighting teams to prevent the blaze spreading through their campus. Even in late October, when smoke had cleared from much of the rest of the region, visibility in the city remained at 5 metres. Today, says Lilley, most of the central Kalimantan peat forest is burnt and black. In many places the skeletons of trees remain, 'leafless, with trunks charred up to two metres but with all the roots destroyed'.

Beneath the surface, the fires smoulder on. While little can be done to influence El Nino, disastrous fires are not inevitable. Simple and inexpensive changes in forestry practices can greatly reduce fire risks in logged forests," says Sayer. Part of the problem is the vast amount of dead wood left behind when forests are cleared. Even if it is not deliberately torched, this detritus swiftly dries in the sun, ready to be ignited by the slightest spark. It needs to be removed by other means. One possibility, says Sayer, might be to accelerate decomposition of waste wood. Another is to chip or shred it for mulching. Sayer and Sanchez advocate a licensing system under which large companies would have to obtain a permit before using fire to clear the land. There would have to be additional restrictions during El Nino years and perhaps a permanent ban on burning in peat bogs. The government could also tackle structural features of the economy that encourage fires. For instance, if timber prices were allowed to rise it would be much more attractive for plantation companies to harvest forest timber rather than bum it. Some Indonesian politicians are attempting to tackle these problems. The environment minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, and the forestry minister, Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo, are both regarded as having good fire records. Last year they issued early warnings about the risks of fires, and spoke out against the perpetrators.

Sarwono accused local officials of colluding with companies to violate Suharto's bans on burning. Djamaludin used data from satellite images to name 176 companies including some owned by the Suharto family-responsible for the burning.

Playing down the damage

Some other sections of the government are more reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem. As late as last October, govenunent officials were telling the )ath World Forestry Congress that the blazes had devoured less than 220,000 hectares, and were decrying enviroronmentalists' estimates of 1.7 million hectares destroyed. But a goverranent-commissioned study, carried out by the WWF and the Washington DC think-tank the World Resources Insfitute, has since shown that even the environmentalists had underestimated the damage. At least 2 million hectares burnt. Fear of more bad publicity may make the larger plantation companies more cautious this year, says Wall. But the burning is not likely to stop. 'The problem is that these plantations have very big progranunes of new planting or replanting, and the land clearance is often subcontracted,' says Wall. Subcontractors "are out for a quick buck and are poorly supervised, if at afl,' he says. 'They would still risk burning in remote areas even if the total ban on fires for land clearing is reintroduced." Last year, few of Indonesia's landowners took serious notice of the President's exhortations to stop the burning. With no m easures to back them up, the pleas were taken to be for international rather than domestic consumption. This year the picture is made even more complicated by the financial crisis that has hit Indonesia and other East Asian economies. Will land clearance grind to a halt as the economy crashes? Or will the land barons and their contractors simply cut more corners, causing more conflagrations, in an effort to maintain profits? It will certainly take more than fine words from the President to quench the fires.