Prevention is better than cure: Managing habitats now to stop forest fires in the future

Conservation Blog

Our work to prevent forest fires never stops. The fight never stops. Our efforts does not only involve extinguishing the flames, but also stopping the flames ever catching alight. Our Conservation Manager, Pau Brugues Sintes, talks about exactly what this involves!

Damming Canal Agung-2

Building an effective dam is a multi-stage process. Photo: Pau Brugues Sintes/BNF

In undisturbed conditions, peat-swamp forests are fire resistant. Even during the dry season the ground will remain wet. These forests can be inaccessible and challenging for people as it is very hard to walk through the swampy environment. This is why in the 1990s illegal loggers dug canals in the peat swamps of Sabangau to gain easier access into the forest and extract timber.

Canals in the forest are like small rivers, but with devastating consequences. All the water that’s lost through these canals drains the forest making the habitat very dry. This is particularly dangerous in the annual dry season and even more so during the years that are affected by the El Niño phenomenon, which causes hotter and drier conditions.

Dry peatlands are extremely susceptible to fires, creating a big problem when human activities are carried out in the forest, as almost all the forest fires are caused by people. A cigarette butt, a cooking fire not properly extinguished…anything can quickly become a big problem on dry peat.


Damming canals will keep species, like the Bornean orangutan, safe from forest fires. Photo: Pau Brugues Sintes/BNF

Since 2007, CIMTROP’s Community Patrol Team with OuTrop’s support have been damming the canals in the research area of the Sabangau Forest. Now, more than 500 dams had been built to help re-wet the swamp and prevent fires in the future. This year we started to build even more as there are thousands of canals, which are still putting Sabangau at risk! We’ve already started to build more than 70 new dams in four undammed canals this year. Nowadays we have the knowledge from the past nine years on how to build effective dams. Now we use better materials, we have better designs, and we run a more efficient and cost effective project. Knowledge and experience makes a big difference in a project like this.

To integrate the community of the nearby village of Kereng Bangkirai, all the dams are built with teams that integrate members of the Patrol Team and people from the local community. This way, they can benefit from the employment and gain an understanding on the importance of canal blocking. This is a key thing, as later on these people will spread the word in their village and hopefully people will understand the long-term benefits of the dams.

The success of the project depends on two main aspects; (1) Research: to know the best techniques, designs and materials for canal damming and (2) Socialisation: the way the community sees our work and the way we explain it to them will determine if they embrace it or they reject it. This is why it is so important, as it can be the difference between people breaking dams or people taking care of them.

Thank you to Save The Orangutan, Orangutan Land Trust, The Orangutan Project, Orangutan Conservancy, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Arcus Foundation and United States Fish and Wildlife Service for supporting this conservation project.


Damming Canal Agung-8

CIMTROP’s Patrol Team and members of the community from Kereng Bangkirai with one of our newest dams. Photo: Pau Brugues Sintes/BNF