Forest fires

Down to Earth No. 55, November 2002

Smoke from forest fires and land clearance has choked Central Kalimantan for three months, causing serious health, transport and economic problems. West Kalimantan and Riau have also been badly affected.

The problems have been worst in Central Kalimantan, which has been hit even harder than in 1997. Palangkaraya has suffered from thick smog continuously since mid-August. By October there were 400 to 500 hot spots (clusters of fires) around the provincial capital. With visibility down to 100m most mornings, vehicles crept along with their headlights on. On the worst days people could see less than 5m. Most inhabitants stayed indoors as far as possible. Education has been disrupted as the authorities eventually ordered schools to close for days or weeks at a time. Work hours at a number of government and commercial offices were cut. Forest and brush fires are still burning in many areas of Central Kalimantan. Resigned to the annual catastrophe, people were waiting for rains to extinguish the fires and clear the air, as DTE went to press.


Threats to health, livelihoods

Environmental NGOs and local government agencies had distributed thousands of free masks to motorists and pedestrians by early August and people wore home-made masks, although these provide little protection. Air pollution levels were still above the hazardous 1,000 level on the PSI scale by mid-October (above 100 is classified 'unhealthy'). Minute dust particles cause health problems, especially for those already suffering from asthma or chest infections. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable.

Palangkaraya health department admitted there had been a three-fold increase in respiratory cases by the first three weeks of August. Many people also suffered from sore eyes and severe headaches. Hospitals soon stopped releasing figures to reporters, but data from the health office in Palangkaraya showed almost 3,000 people visited clinics with respiratory and other smoke-related problems in the two months to September. It is estimated that the health and lives of 4 million people may be affected in Central Kalimantan alone. There have been no reports of the problems experienced in the towns and villages outside the provincial capitals where most people's daily work is farming and fishing and health facilities are poor.

The local economy has been crippled. Transport by road around Palangkaraya and south to Banjarmasin in neighbouring South Kalimantan has been hampered by thick smoke. More significantly, river transport - the major means of distributing most goods in Central Kalimantan - has been badly affected as boat owners and passengers fear collisions. Palangkaraya's Tjilik Riwut Airport has been closed by smoke since August 26th. An airforce Hercules managed to land with a shaken party of government ministers and foreign diplomats on October 14th in visibility under 300m. Welfare Minister Jusuf Kalla, Health Minister Achmad Sujudi, Environment Minister Nabiel Makarim and Minister for Resettlement and Regional Infrastructure Sunarno came to Palangkaraya to encourage Governor Aswawi Agani to take action on the fires, but offered no practical help. Forestry minister Prakosa was conspicuous by his absence. He had been forced to cancel an earlier visit to the province to monitor illegal logging controls because of the smoke.

The smog affecting Palangkaraya is part of the legacy of the peat swamp rice megaproject to the south. Over a million hectares of swamp were stripped of forest and drained, leaving an ecological disaster. The exposed peat dries out and, once it catches fire, is very difficult to extinguish. Fires and smoke could be seen from the Trans Kalimantan highway as early as July, where fires had been burning for several weeks.

Burning coal seams are a long-term hazard for fire control and make a serious contribution to global warming. An American consultant, A. F. Whitehouse, estimates that there could be 100,000 underground fires in Indonesia. "These may produce more carbon dioxide than all the power stations and cars in Indonesia put together".


Other regions

Satellite recordings showed more than 2,000 hot spots in Kalimantan and hundreds in Sumatra by mid-August. West Kalimantan was particularly badly affected. In the provincial capital, Pontianak, newspapers reported that nearly 2,500 people were experiencing respiratory problems due to the smoke when the air pollution index reached 1,076. By September, Riau and Jambi, where fire problems had been bad earlier in the year, were again engulfed by smoke.

By late October, the 'haze' was also covering South Kalimantan, including districts previously free from smoke such as Hulu Sungai Utara, Hulu Sungai Tengah and Hulu Sungai Selatan. Fires had broken out in pine forests on the slopes of Mounts Merbabu and Telomoyo in Central Java and Mount Ciremai in West Java where there was no sign of an end to the extended dry season. Meanwhile, burning forest and rice stubble in Donggala and Palu districts was starting to cause smoke problems in Central Sulawesi.

As usual, prevailing winds have blown the haze to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia. Visibility in parts of Kuala Lumpur and other areas in central and southern Peninsular Malaysia is said to have fallen to 50 percent below normal. Malaysia is not releasing air pollution figures, ostensibly to protect its tourist industry. Earlier this year, Malaysia banned open burning, with exceptions made for only for cremations and destroying animal carcasses. By early October, Singapore advised residents with heart and respiratory ailments to reduce hard physical activity and stay indoors as the thickest haze of the year blanketed the island state. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have all complained about the fires, but the Indonesian government's feeble response is to appeal for "understanding and assistance". ASEAN has no means to force compliance with the haze treaty signed in June.


Who is to blame?

The prolonged dry season, land clearing and illegal logging have been blamed for the fires, although international experts say that the El Niño effect is much weaker than in 1997/8. Even so, the dry season - and therefore the fires and the haze - could last until the end of the year. It is unclear how much damage this year's fires will cause, but it could approach the US$9 billion losses caused in 1997/8.

Technology makes the identification of hotspots easy by comparing satellite images and land use maps. Research by the international forestry research centre, CIFOR, showed clearly that more than three-quarters of the hot-spots recorded in West and Central Kalimantan in August were located in oil palm plantations, timber plantations and logging concessions. Many of Indonesia's forests have been badly damaged by logging: legal and illegal. Uncontrolled exploitation has opened up the forest canopy and, in the absence of rain, the forest has become tinder dry.

Nevertheless, so-called bush fires rather than forest fires are responsible for the smoke problems in areas near urban centres. Small-scale farmers still burn to clear land. Indigenous communities claim that they limit burning to specific times and areas, based on generations of experience. However, they are increasingly outnumbered by settlers, transmigrants and urban-based land speculators who do not follow traditional practices.


A non-issue for Jakarta

Despite the severity of the problem, little has been done. Jakarta says it is helpless against the haze. Local politicians have asked central government for more money to deal with the annual impact of fires but, since regional autonomy, Jakarta's response is that this is now the local authorities' responsibility. Such financial considerations are doubtless behind Jakarta's reluctance to declare the fires a national disaster.

Local governments are not blameless. Typically, provincial governors hold a meeting with district heads and mayors to discuss efforts to cope with the fires, once they have started. A lack of funding, equipment and trained personnel are blamed, by those who bother to attend. In reality, most local authorities tend to sit back and watch things get worse as the fires become too numerous and extensive to tackle, while waiting for the rains to come and solve the problem.

International fire control projects have provided training for local communities in anticipating and tackling fires. Techniques include digging ditches to try and prevent fires from spreading. It was only in September that forest management DirGen, I Made Subadia, announced his department would allocate some US$8 million mainly for training local people in fire prevention.

Indonesian forest researchers and environmental activists are frustrated by the lack of government action. Tackling forest fires was high on the list of priorities of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Forestry (IDCF) set up in 2000 in response to the concerns of donor nations belonging to the CGI, but this initiative has borne little fruit. Togu Manurung of Forest Watch Indonesia refuses to blame the political and economic turmoil of the last four years. "The laws are still there and they're being broken. The agencies responsible for monitoring and enforcing these laws are in place and the judges are in place, but in effect nothing has happened".

Environment Minister Nabiel has repeatedly said that Indonesia would try to do a better job of fire prevention, adding that tougher law enforcement had reduced cases of open burning in Sumatra. There is little evidence to support his statement (see DTE 53). Indonesian NGOs have accused the environment minister of lying about the impact of forest fires in Indonesia. Indonesia's country report, distributed to all countries taking part in the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in August, stated that only between 200,000 hectares and 5 million hectares of forests were destroyed due to fires in 1997/8. Environmental groups say the true figure was 10million ha, citing data from the National University of Singapore, WWF and the Integrated Forest Fires Management project.


Drought affects Java's farmers

The prolonged dry season has left thousands of farmers in West and Central Java facing harvest failure. Rice and other crops have died where local irrigation agencies have been unable to meet demands for water. Government officials have authorised cloud seeding in some areas, fearing a significant loss in rice production.

Click here for a chronology of news items and other information about forest fires in Indonesia for 2002

(Straits Times 21/Aug/02; New Scientist 31/Aug/02; Jakarta Post 13/Sep/02, 21/Sept/02, 14/Oct/02, 15/Oct/02, 16/Oct/02, 22/Oct/02)