Fact File

Clearing the smoke: The causes and consequences of Indonesia’s fires

What are the costs of the fires? Why do they start? How does the smoke affect health and wildlife? What happens next? Answers to these and more ...
Army officers try to extinguish fires in peat land areas, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR
Army officers try to extinguish fires in peat land areas, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

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Indonesia - In September 2015, large fires flared up in the forest, degraded lands and peatlands of Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra, and other parts of Indonesia. Fires continue to be lit.

As of late October, more than 115,000 fires are active across much of the archipelago, but concentrated in the provinces of Riau and Jambi on the island of Sumatra, as well as Central and West Kalimantan on Borneo.

Between June and October 2015, fires have burned 2.6 million hectares of land.

Fires are an annual, normal event in Indonesia’s peatlands and forests, peaking around September or October. But deforestation and repeated burning have made the landscape considerably more fire-prone.

The fires are being made worse by an exceptionally intense El Niño event, which is predicted to persist into early 2016.

However, research by CIFOR shows that major air pollution events are no longer restricted to drought years, as peatland deforestation and ongoing land degradation continue to make large parts of the landscape even more susceptible to burning.

Meanwhile, the costs of the fires and haze continue to mount. The root causes are complex. Reaching long-term solutions to prevent future fires will take time, coordination and solid evidence.


Counting the costs of fire and haze 

  • The years 1997–98 also saw an especially strong El Niño event. At that time, fires burned across more than 6 million hectares of Indonesia, causing at least $8.5 billion in damages, mainly to forestry and farming.
  • Haze from the 1997–98 fires is estimated to have resulted in around $4.5 billion in tourism and short-term health costs throughout the region.
  • Both of the above estimates included very conservative estimates of the carbon cost. In 1997–98, carbon emissions were high enough to elevate Indonesia to one of the largest global polluters.
  • Later work by CIFOR showed 1.45 billion tons of carbon dioxide was emitted in the 1997–98 fires, with a 2005 market value of around $3.6 billion. Given that the price of carbon is likely to rise in the long term, future fires could come at a much higher cost.


How fires start in Indonesia and why they continue

  • Fires in peatland are extremely difficult to put out, often smoldering for days or weeks, threatening to reignite the landscape. Only the heavy downpours of the wet season can truly extinguish them.
  • Peat is a mixture of soil and partly decayed vegetation, formed in the wetlands that line the coasts of the Indonesian archipelago.
  • Deforestation exposes the peat beneath the trees and together with drainage, dries the material. Clearing and repeated burning also encourage the growth of ferns and shrubs that are themselves more fire-prone.
  • Fire is a cheap and easy way for smallholder farmers and large companies to clear land for crops such as oil palm.
  • Traditionally, local farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to open up small patches of rainforest for crops and livestock.
  • Unclear or unenforced land tenure sets the stage for conflict between local smallholders, migrants, government agencies, communities and corporations. Fire is often used to stake claims.
  • Indonesia’s palm oil industry is driven by global demand and investment by Malaysian and Singaporean companies, among others. In 2014, Indonesia supplied about 52 percent of the world’s palm oil, which is used in a wide range of products: from potato chips to cosmetics to cooking oil to toothpaste.


The human toll of the fires and smoke

  • This year’s smoke-producing fires seem set to be the worst since those of 1997–98, which were estimated to have adversely affected the health, property and livelihoods of some 75 million people in Indonesia and the region.
  • The Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB) is reported to have estimated that 500,000 people have developed respiratory symptoms because of smoke released by this year’s fires.
  • The toxic smoke from forest and peat fires is a mixture of soot (particulate matter or PM) and various dangerous chemicals, including carbon monoxide, ammonia, cyanide, formic acids, formaldehyde and many others.
  • The immediate health effects of smoke include headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, confusion, and fatigue—all of which can substantially reduce productivity and exacerbate other illnesses.
  • The longer-term health risks are less clear but are thought to increase the heavier the smoke and the longer the exposure.
  • A 2013 study estimates that the 1997–98 smoke resulted in the premature death of around 11,000 adults from cardiovascular disease. The mortality of children (who make up more than half the region’s population) was not estimated but is thought to have been higher again.
  • In Central Kalimantan, in mid-October 2015, CIFOR measured carbon monoxide levels 30 times higher than normal, indoors and more than 30 kilometers from the nearest fire.
  • Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) is reported to have said at least 43 million people on Sumatra and Kalimantan have been exposed to the toxic smoke.


Fire and climate change are intertwined

  • Under natural conditions, carbon from forest fires is removed from the atmosphere when vegetation regrows. When forests are cleared or peat burned, however, there is a net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • CIFOR research shows that, in 2013, one week of fires, mostly confined to Sumatra, produced emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to 5–10 percent of Indonesia’s average annual emissions for 2000–05.
  • The fire risk tends to worsen in drought years, and is exacerbated by climatic events in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • El Niño events, for instance, typically decrease rainfall in the Western Pacific. The latest forecast suggests El Niño conditions will persist until early 2016, exacerbating the risk of fire.
  • Unchecked, global warming is predicted to substantially raise the frequency of El Niño events.
  • Research by CIFOR shows that major air pollution events are no longer restricted to drought years, as deforestation and ongoing land degradation continue to make large parts of the landscape more fire prone.
  • Recent estimates suggest the fires could add more than 1 billion tons of carbon to Indonesia’s emissions load. This has significant implications for the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris and for Indonesia’s target to cut emissions from the land sector by 29 percent below business-as-usual by 2030.


Effects of fire and smoke on wildlife

  • Deforestation and forest and land degradation already threaten to many plant and animal species, including remnant orangutan populations.
  • Hundreds of fires have been reported inside refuges and national parks on the island of Borneo, which constitute critical habitat for around a third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans.
  • Wildlife organizations report orangutans emerging out of the forest to escape the fires, exposing them to the risks of direct contact with people.
  • The Bornean orangutan is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  • Impacts on pollinating insects are likely very high.


Legal restrictions on fire are seldom successful

  • Indonesia’s forest moratoriumprohibits authorities from issuing new permits for development on peatland. However, conversion to oil palm plantations can go ahead for concessions already awarded, including some on peatland.


Corporate self-regulation has met with mixed success

  • Research from earlier yearsshows that some large companies have been willing to risk a fine, rather than pay for preventative measures.


Addressing the complex root causes of fire

  • The roots of Indonesia’s fire problem lie in poverty and weak governance. They are not, in the first instance, environmental problems but human ones.
  • The fires do not have a single cause. They are the result of activities by a network of different actors from the community, government, non-government, and private sectors.
  • These groups operate across several different types of land: corporate concessions, state land and private/communal lands. In many cases, it is not clear who has tenure rights to the land.


Looking for long-term solutions: from suppression to prevention

  • Today, many different people benefit enormously from fires, including farmers, politicians, businesspeople, government officers, and even academics. This means the financial incentive to switch to alternative land-uses needs to be substantial.


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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This article was produced with the financial assistance of the UK Department for International Development, through the KnowFor project, and USAID.
Topic(s) :   Wetlands Fire & haze Indonesian Wetlands
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