New maps reveal more complex picture of Sumatran fires

Figure 1  Map showing the progression of the February-March 2014 fires in the largest burned area (22,000 ha) on Pulau Rupat, a small island off the coast of mainland Sumatra, overlaid over our detailed land use map in an Acacia concession (HTI, or Hutan Tanaman Industri). The combined maps illustrate that the fires started outside the concession boundary or in land occupied by small-scale operators (communities) in the concession in early February, and had spread deep into the interior of the concession by the end of March.

Figure 1 — Map showing the progression of the February-March 2014 fires in the largest burned area (22,000 ha) on Pulau Rupat, a small island off the coast of mainland Sumatra, overlaid over our detailed land use map in an Acacia concession (HTI, or Hutan Tanaman Industri). The combined maps illustrate that the fires started outside the concession boundary or in land occupied by small-scale operators (communities) in the concession in early February, and had spread deep into the interior of the concession by the end of March. (Click on map for greater detail.) CIFOR photo

Extreme episodes of trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia in 2013 and 2014 — and an anticipated El-Niño-induced drought during the second half of 2014, which could result in significantly heightened fire activity across Indonesia — have focused attention on causes and origins of fires in peatland areas of Sumatra. It has also prompted the affected countries in the region to develop policies to mitigate future fires in the region — as well as penalties for those who start the fires.

Our analysis reveals that the fires either started outside concessions, or on land occupied by small-scale operators (local or migrant communities) within the concessions

Indonesia’s vice president has convened senior ministers from several agencies to combat the problem, and a special “situation room” is being established to ensure firefighting capabilities and response within hours after new fire hotspots are detected by satellites.

In parallel, Singapore has drafted a bill that would allow it to fine companies for fires that take place on their plantations. (Haze wafting from Indonesian fires in June 2013 choked the skies of Singapore, causing record-high levels of air pollution.) Singaporean authorities, as well as many advocacy groups, now blame plantation companies (large-scale operators) for the recent burning, based upon analyses of fire hotspots and cadastral maps showing that over half of hotspots during the recent 2013 and 2014 fire event in Sumatra was within concessions — i.e., land allocated to companies for plantation development of industrial-scale monoculture oil palm and Acacia.

Policy interventions for mitigating fires require solid information on who is setting fires to whose land. However, this basic information is missing, because competing claims over land ownership in Indonesia gives rise to confusion over who is setting fires to whose land.

Land use and land tenure in Indonesia are governed by a tangle of national, provincial and customary laws that often compete with each other, resulting in confusion over who owns which bit of land. This situation is exacerbated by an influx of land-seeking migrants and by investments in agricultural expansion by mid-level investors of unknown origin. Tensions — and occasionally conflict — can arise among these land users. Another confounding factor is the fact that fires move across the landscape, propelled by topography and wind.

One cannot assume — based only on fire hotspot locations overlaid on concession maps — that burning within concessions is caused by large companies. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Land within a concession boundary may not be fully controlled by the corporation in question. A large part may be claimed and occupied by unrelated land users, and these land users may be the ones who start fires in the concessions.
  2. Fires can start outside the concessions and spread into the concessions.

We show here that it is possible to produce detailed maps of land use in concessions, showing the areas occupied by unrelated land users (small-scale and mid-level operators) using before-and-after fire images from NASA’s recently launched LANDSAT satellite. We can also produce detailed maps of fire progression, showing where fire starts and where fire ends, using a combination of LANDSAT and fire hotspots data.

We applied our methods to the February and March 2014 fires that generated the two largest burned areas in Riau province, Sumatra — one in Bengkalis district and one on the nearby island of Pulau Rupat.

Our analysis reveals that the fires either started outside concessions, or on land occupied by small-scale operators (local or migrant communities) within the concessions (see Figure 1 at top, and Figure 2, below).

Figure ii Gav POLEX

Figure 2 — Map revealing the progression of the February-March 2014 fires in the second-largest burned area (18,000 ha) in Bengkalis district (see inset for location), overlaid over our detailed land use map in an Acacia concession (HTI, or Hutan Tanaman Industri). The combined maps show that the fires started outside the concession boundary or in land occupied by small-scale operators (communities) in the concession in early February, and had spread deep into the interior of the concession by the end of March. (Click on map for greater detail.) CIFOR photo

While our analysis should not be read as completely absolving companies — as companies have in the past used fire to clear land — it does show that the situation on the ground is more complex than is often portrayed, and that companies are not always entirely to blame when fires are started on their concessions. Our findings are likely to complicate efforts to hold companies accountable and to penalize offenders.

Our analysis points to the need to continue — and expand — this type of monitoring, and to move away from assigning blame simply by overlaying hotspot and concession maps. The situation on the ground, as we now can see, is more complex than that.


  • samlawson

    Importantly, you fail to mention that Indonesian law does not just prohibit concessionaires from using fire to clear land. It also requires them to have detailed plans and facilities in place with which to both prevent and halt fires within the land officially under their control (licensed to them). So even if a fire is started by a local community within or outside the concession, this does not mean the company concerned is not in breach of the law, if it does not have the legally required measures in place to prevent such a fire spreading.

  • Brad Sanders

    Dear CIFOR, thank you for writing the first ever accurate account of what is happening on the ground in Riau and relation to the nationally licensed concession lands experiencing the blunt of the blame for the land-clearing fires which are started by communities both outside and claiming land inside these concessions. (Note, I am not commenting on the Indonesian government’s licensing of lands in the provinces / regencies, only on the causes and challenges of fire management in Riau). I worked for 10-years setting up the fire management systems and ordering the firefighting equipment used by one HTI and coordinated the HCVF assessment for Pulau Rupat above) and therefore know both the systems and that specific area very well. The complexity of the situation between the HTI and the communities goes beyond words. Preventing fires ignited by slash-n-burn land claimers requires a miracle. Company’s certainly do not want there pulp plantations to burn, but controlling these same fires during the “Spring” season (which experiences strong coastal winds and low humidity’s) requires more suppression resources (than legally required) and luck than the US Forest Service even has. The GoI/MoF provides ZERO support to fire management/control on nationally licensed concessions. Communities and encroachers take no responsibility for their actions and in fact aim to burn as much as they can during the dry season to accomplish their goals of conversion to agricultural oil palm in designated forestry zones.