Borneo is burning, but why?

Conservation Blog

As described in our recent blog, the fire situation in Kalimantan is worsening seemingly by the day. Thick and hazardous smoke is enveloping the region, and the forest habitat of orangutans and other wildlife is under threat.

Although the threat is much more severe this year, avid followers of OuTrop will recall that fires also occurred in the region last year. Indeed, peat fires have now become an annual threat in Indonesia, though there is a lot of variation in fire risk and incidence between years. Why should this be?

A member of CIMTROP's Community Patrol Team fighting a fire along the Sabangau River in September 2015.
Photo from Community Patrol Team

As elsewhere, Indonesian peat fires need both an ignition source and a dry fuel to burn. The vegetation and particularly peat is the fuel, this is dried out by peat drainage and dry weather, and fires are started by people. Fires are therefore worse in more heavily drained areas, locations that are used by people and in dry years. That’s the simple answer, but solving the problem requires a deeper understanding of the drivers of fire and how they inter-relate.

Forest burning during the 2014 fires. Photo by Bernat Ripoll Capilla/OuTrop

While some fires are started accidentally by discarded cigarettes, for example, studies suggest that the huge majority are started on purpose. Big industry is frequently blamed by both media and politicians, and not without reason: studies have shown that companies use fire to clear land cheaply and easily, and as a weapon of sorts to increase their potential to obtain use of land. There are some signs of optimism with most of the larger companies now making zero-deforestation pledges and signing up to sustainable production standards, such as the RSPO, and the Indonesian government cracking down on companies that burn land illegally

Some recent studies (see here and here) even indicate that more fires may actually be started by small holders than large companies. Small holders use fire for essentially the same reasons as large companies – to clear, gain access to and/or increase the value of land – but the issue is likely to prove more challenging to overcome in small holders. Large companies can more easily develop, implement, coordinate and police fire prevention policies, and have better access to resources to do this. Compare this to the situation with many thousands of small landholders, with no centralised organisation and extremely limited resources (many small holders are incredibly poor). The challenge is great, but urgent.

The impact of fire is devastating. Photo by Bernat Ripoll Capilla/OuTrop

In upcoming blogs, we will detail why the unique ecology of Indonesia’s peatlands makes them so vulnerable to fire, and how the current El Niño event in the region is contributing to the severe fire risk being faced this year.

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