Forest fires burn again

Down to Earth No. 43, November 1999

Indonesia has again been affected by serious forest fires in what is now recognised as an annual disaster.

Satellite images showed clearly that most fires originate from concessions owned by agribusiness and timber companies. Burning is the cheapest means for companies to convert logged-over forest to more profitable use as plantations.

This year, Indonesian environmental NGOs, forest research institutions and the governments of neighbouring countries were much quicker off the mark to call on the Indonesian government to take effective action. By April, they were warning that severe air pollution in a number of regions might exceed 1997 levels since earlier fires had left plenty of partly burned areas that could easily catch fire again. According to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), the 1997 fires destroyed about 10 million hectares of forest, concessions and plantations, causing a total loss of Rp 60 trillion (US$8.8 billion).

No official figures have been released on the area affected by forest fires this year or on the numbers of people whose health has been affected. The general consensus is that, while serious, the fires were not as extensive as in 1997/8. This owed more to the lingering effects of the climatic disturbance 'La Nina', which brought Indonesia more rain than usual this year, than to any government measures.

The first signs of serious trouble were in late April when satellite images showed 43 "hot spots," or fire areas in Sumatra. By late July, smoke from fires in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra were causing 'haze' in Singapore and Indonesia's neighbours were complaining. Brunei threatened to press charges against Indonesia when smoke from forest fires looked like crippling the 20th Southeast Asian Games it was hosting in August, but decided to settle the matter through ASEAN behind the scenes. Indonesian government officials gave out mixed messages. In June, the head of the directorate of forest fires at the Environmental Impact Control Agency (Bapedal) said the fires were not in the "high risk" category, while the director general of Nature Protection and Conservation was circulating 'Fire Risk Stage 1' instructions to provincial forestry departments.

The worst affected areas were central and southern Sumatra and Kalimantan; there were few reports from other parts of Indonesia. Riau province declared a state of emergency in early August as smoke reduced visibility to 200m in places. The air pollution index (PSI) in the provincial capital, Pekanbaru, hit 978. A PSI of over 300 is dangerous to human health. More than 300 people were admitted to hospitals in early August alone, mostly suffering from respiratory problems. The authorities closed kindergartens and put clinics on 24-hour standby. The 'haze' was blamed for the collision of a tanker and barge in the Malacca Strait that left a dozen people dead. Riau has extensive peat and coal deposits; once fires take hold they can be extremely difficult to extinguish. About 3,000 civilian volunteers were called in to help put out forest fires.

Satellite images showed that the fires were worst in August. By August 2nd, the number of 'hot spots' (defined as a 100 hectare area of burning forest) in Sumatra had reached 325. So-called 'Protected Areas' were also affected: there were reports of serious fire damage in the Lahat nature reserve, South Sumatra and Way Kambas National Park in Lampung. The environment authorities located more than 280 hot spots during a flight over West Kalimantan. Haze from fires in the province disrupted flights to and from Pontianak's Supadio Airport. West Kalimantan authorities ordered children to stay inside due to the 'haze'. South and Central Kalimantan also had large numbers of 'hot spots' during late July and August.

The fires continued well into September, despite some early rain. However, the attention of national and international press was diverted from forest fires by the East Timor referendum and its violent aftermath. Also, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries hard-hit by the economic crisis are desperate to promote income from investors and tourism. Singapore's Science, Technology and Environment Minister announced that there was no need to publicise air pollution levels during 'the haze' because the government did not want to "drive away the tourists".

As in earlier years, some Indonesian officials still looked for other scapegoats, maintaining that the fires were caused primarily by small farmers and local villagers burning to plant their crops. The emphasis was still on fire fighting. Government officials talked of 24-hour monitoring posts in forest areas, helicopter patrols for early detection and training of fire fighters in the two areas, mostly in the context of international aid supplied through UNEP, ADB and bilateral donors. They claimed that, hampered by lack of equipment and funds, they could only step up patrols and distribute warning leaflets – woefully inadequate measures in the face of a potential calamity. Meanwhile, the government has yet to take successful court action against any of the companies identified in 1997/8 as responsible for illegal burning.

Clearly, the Indonesian government must take overall responsibility for the forest fires, but its ASEAN neighbours could do more. Malaysia prepared a national haze action plan, but does not insist that Malaysian companies investing in or operating plantation companies in Indonesia implement the 'no-burn' policy they are required to follow in their home country. The ASEAN regional group has a "haze action plan" to co-ordinate strategies for fighting the blazes, sharing information about the location of blazes and strengthening fire fighting capabilities and planned a crisis meeting in late August for regional environmental ministers to address the problem. DTE has no reports of the outcome.

Since the international community purports to be bailing Indonesia out of the Asian financial crisis, the forest fires - and the underlying economic and political policies - should be higher on the international agenda. Over the past 30 years, Indonesia's forestry policy and practices abound with examples of the unjustified subsidies, unsustainable development and poor governance that the IMF and World Bank claim they are mandated to change. Nevertheless, moves to open up Indonesia's forests to greater exploitation and the liberalisation of trade in natural resources including timber – promoted by these international funding institutions as the solution to Indonesia's economic problems – only increase the risk of future fires.


A regular update on the fires can be obtained from:

FFPCP Sumatra Fire Overview:
IFFM Kalimantan Fire Overview:
ASEAN Haze Action Online:


(Sources: AP 30/4/99; AFP  29/9/99; SCMP 5/8/99; ST 6/8/99, 8/8/99; JP 9/8/99, 7/9/99; WP15/8/99; NYT 28/8/99; IHT 30/8/99; Reuters 13/10/99)