Forest fires in Sumatra

Down to Earth No 67  November 2005

"There is no such thing as a spontaneous forest fire in Indonesia", forestry minister Kaban pronounced, as smoke from forest fires in Sumatra once again caused serious air pollution in Malaysia and Singapore from July to September.

The minister stated publicly that the fires are due to competing claims over 'unproductive' forest areas. There are some 17 million ha of forest land in Indonesia which has been over-logged or zoned for conversion, according to officials. The situation is made worse, says Kaban, by the new administrative regions that are particularly keen to promote plantation development because of the potential for revenues.

Some evidence for the forestry minister's views comes from studies into the causes of fires in eight sites in southern Sumatra and East and West Kalimantan. Forest researchers carried out in-depth analyses of the use of fire in each location using satellite images, hot spot data and interviews with companies, villagers and government officials. They discovered a number of different reasons. Both large plantation companies and small farmers used fire for land clearance and to destroy each other's crops in tenure disputes. Companies cleared land for oil palm plantations and timber estates whereas local farmers cleared it mostly for annual crops, coffee or rubber. Many fires accidentally got out of control.

This year the worst month was August. There were 3,258 'hot spots' recorded by NOAA satellites in the province of Riau in August, each one representing a fire. However, as early as February, the Riau authorities considered closing down schools when serious forest fires affected 10,000 hectares of peat forest and visibility in the provincial capital of Pekanbaru was down to 300m.

Plantation companies and timber estates blamed

Once again, forests on the border between Riau and North Sumatra were badly affected. Rokan Hilir district had the highest number of hot spots throughout the month of August. Many of the fires were in logging concessions where companies had ceased operations because their licences had ended or there were more profitable activities elsewhere. These included PT Inti Prona, PT Sylva Bina Timber Coy, PT Cipta Jaya Andalas Timber, PT Essa Indah Timber and PT Rokan Permai Tbr. Here it is highly likely that uncertainty over the future status of these tracts of forest encouraged various stakeholders to burn off the vegetation as a means of claiming the land for plantations.

Satellite images also showed fires in plantations and industrial timber estates (HTI). WWF reported that, of the 5,420 hotspots from satellite images between mid-July and mid-August, about half -- 2,692 hotspots -- were in company concessions and 2,728 on land held by local communities. The distribution of the hotspots was 1,114 in industrial timber plantations (HTI); 656 in logging concessions (HPH) and 922 in oil palm plantations. WWF also made public the fact that many hotspots were located in the concessions of companies accused by Riau's government for setting fires to clear land in 2003. The companies were a sister company of Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), PT Arara Abadi (459 hotspots); Astra Group's PT. Ekadura Indonesia (74); Wilmar Group's PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa (55); and Sambu Group's PT Guntung Hasrat Makmur and PT Agroraya Gemartrans (21).

An NGO investigation in July found evidence of illegal logging linked to the some of the same companies. CV Tessa Indah, a contractor of PT. Rokan Era Subur, was logging natural forest in Sontang village, in Rokan Hulu district. Timber from this operation is supplied to APP's Indah Kiat pulp and paper plant. Eyes on the Forest also found that PT Jasa Karya, a contractor of Riau Andalan Pulp & Paper was extracting timber from forest in Pulau Padang in Kuantan Singingi district. This was going to APRIL's pulp plant.

Peat swamp forest is especially vulnerable to forest fires and draining these areas for plantations makes them more flammable. For example, of the 166 hot spots recorded in Riau on 16 August, 133 were located in peat swamps and only 33 in non-peat swamp areas. Fires in peat swamp generate huge quantities of acrid smoke and are difficult to extinguish. A vicious circle is thus set up: the fires dry out neighbouring areas of forest and make them more susceptible to burning the next season. Nearly half Riau's 10 million hectares of land is on peat soil.

Calls for action

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) announced in September that it was taking legal action against 10 companies in Riau for allegedly starting forest fires during the month of August. The law suit would be on behalf of local people who had suffered from the severe air pollution, including children who lost their right to education when thick smoke forced schools to suspend classes. WALHI said it was planning to give the names of companies that had set forests on fire in Sumatra and Kalimantan in August to the forestry minister and the chief of the Indonesian police.

There were few reports of the effects of the forest fires on local communities in Riau in the media. However health authorities in South Kalimantan, where there was also a serious fires problem in August and September, have reported a rise in the number of respiratory ailments in infants for those months. The air pollution seems to have been worse in Malaysia and northern Sumatra as the wind carried the smoke further afield. In Malaysia, air pollution reached extremely hazardous levels and forced schools and an airport to close.

WALHI and Friends of the Earth Malaysia called on ASEAN governments to take urgent comprehensive action on what is diplomatically called 'the haze problem' at a meeting of senior environment officials from South East Asian countries held in Penang, Malaysia in mid-August. However, there was no sign of any decisive action. Indonesia has yet to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) again called on ASEAN nations to enforce bans on open burning to prevent the annual pollution crisis and to protect forests. An FAO expert claimed that most of the fires are intentional and used by companies to clear forests for agro-industry. Mike Jurvelius said in a statement: "Using fire to clear forests is prohibited in most of the South East Asian countries and the ban should urgently be enforced."

The underlying problem behind these forest fires is, of course, land tenure. Central and local governments need to work together to develop policies for forests and agriculture which suit local conditions and local needs. Otherwise, when the next El Niño* year comes, Indonesia's forests will be facing disaster on an unprecedented scale.

(Sources: Eyes on the Forest, July, August, September editions; FWI press release 17/Aug/05; WWF press release 22/Aug/05; Jakarta Post 22/Aug/05; AFP 31/Aug/05; Bloomberg 15/Sept/05; AFX 21/Sept/05

* El Niño is the climatic effect that increases the risk of drought and fires in Indonesia. Copies of the article 'Fire, People, and Pixels: Linking Social Science and Remote Sensing to Understanding Underlying Causes and Impacts of Fires in Indonesia', Dennis, R.A. et al, 2005, Human Ecology, 33 (4): 465-504 are available from CIFOR.

Eyes on the Forest is a coalition of environmental NGOs in Sumatra comprising WWF-Indonesia, Friends of the Earth's Riau Office and Jikalahari. They monitor the status of remaining forests in Riau. For more news see