Indonesian fires and toxic smoke devastate wildlife as well as people


Extensive fires have again ravaged forests and peatlands on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra in recent months, engulfing the region in toxic smoke and threatening the health of millions of people. These fires also pose a grave threat to endangered wildlife, with forest loss and the smoke imperilling countless lives.

The Global Forest Watch platform reports that over 260,000 hotspots have been detected in Kalimantan (65% of total) and Sumatra (35%) during August and September 2019. The worst-hit province during this period is Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) with nearly 90,000 hotspots detected. Here, the haze peaked in the third week of September, where the Air Quality Index reached 2,000 in the provincial capital of Palangka Raya. An AQI over 301 is considered “hazardous”.

Throughout Indonesia, the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) reported that the total area of forest and land burned across the country during January to August 2019 reached 328,724 hectares with 44,769 hectares of forest and lands lost in Central Kalimantan.

Fire in Sebangau Forest
Photo by Markurius Sera/BNF

The number of fire occurrence in Central Kalimantan has fallen quite significantly since some rain arrived since mid-October with the full rain season is expected to begin at the end of this month. Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, and its surrounding areas received a number of artificial rain through weather modification technology which in general successfully reduces fires and hotspots in quite a number of places in and around the capital. Nevertheless, coming to the third week of October, small and medium fires still occurred in many areas deep in the peat around Palangka Raya, and haze is still blanketing neighbouring district Pulang Pisau and affecting the health and activity of hundreds of thousands of its inhabitant.

The Head of Borneo Nature Foundation Indonesia (BNF), Juliarta Bramansa Ottay, explains: “This poses a serious risk to public health, particularly for infants, children, the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory illnesses”. UNICEF estimates a total of 10 million children in the region are at risk. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture, over 46,000 schools have been affected by poor air quality, impacting more than 7.8 million students. Indonesia’s Ministry of Health reported that from May to September 2019, 11,758 people in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan were treated for upper respiratory tract infection, the majority of which were children, infants, and the elderly.

BNF is a conservation and research organisation headquartered in the heavily hit Palangka Raya. They have felt the impact, says Juliarta: “Like everyone living here, our team have felt the impacts of this crisis directly. People have been sick, non-essential activities have had to be postponed and our childrens schools have suffered closure because of the haze, and some of our staffs’ property has been directly threatened by fire.”

It is not only people that have suffered from this crisis. Borneo and Sumatra are home to some of the richest forests in the world, including threatened wildlife such as orangutans and clouded leopards. The fires arising from this year’s drought have burned forest, destroying habitat for wildlife that will take centuries to recover naturally, and wildlife will be at risk from many of the same health problems suffered by the local human population.

One particularly important area that has been at risk is the 6,000 km2 Sebangau National Park, which is home to the largest protected population of the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan (around 6,900 individuals) and the largest known population of the endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon. Records from BNF and collaborators indicates that this forest supports over 1,100 plant and animal species, including 46 that are globally threatened species and 59 that are legally protected in Indonesia.

Community Firefighters at the frontline to fight the fires in Sebangau Forest
Photo by Suzanne Turnock | BNF | UPT LLG CIMTROP

Juliarta added: “Forests such as Sebangau are vital for the conservation of orangutans and the many other globally threatened wildlife species that call them home. Fire is the greatest threat faced by many of these forests and tackling the problem – both immediately through fire-fighting crises and in the long-term through improved forest management and policies – is crucial for conserving these irreplaceable species”.

The National Disaster Management Agency in Indonesia reported more than 10,000 joint government personnel have been working in the field throughout Central Kalimantan to extinguish fires, aided by thousands of volunteers and community groups, including three community groups supported by BNF, plus dozens of helicopters, firefighting and weather modification aircraft.

BNF Conservation Manager, Yunsiska Ermiasi, said “the scale, magnitude, and rapid spread of this year’s fires in Central Borneo is close to that experienced during the 2015 fire crisis, which burned large swathes of forest and almost destroyed our long-term orangutan research site. We were better prepared in 2019, but conditions have been so dry that all three fire-fighting teams we support have been continuously battling fires for the last two months”.

In an effort to eliminate forest fire, BNF facilitates three bottom-up, community-based local fire response teams: MPA Kereng Bengkirai, MPA Sabaru, and LAHG CIMTROP Patrol team. With support from our donors, we equip these teams with skills, institutional building and equipment to respond to fire. These teams consist of around 48 people, trained and equipped with water pumps, compressors, firehoses, boats and motor-tricycles.

Yunsiska further elaborated, “Each fire response team is tasked with extinguishing fires in their area of responsibility before they grow out of control, and by wetting the peat to prevent hotspots from developing into full-blown fires. Their huge efforts over the past couple of months have left the teams exhausted and we are desperate for the wet season rains to finally arrive to fully extinguish all of the blazes. But we can’t then relax – increased attention and action from all elements of society will be vital in ensuring another fire crisis doesn’t re-emerge in future dry seasons”.

This year’s forest and peat fires in Central Kalimantan has been terrible, nevertheless, anticipation, enthusiasm, persistence and professionalism at community level has exceeded beyond expectations of many. This year’s disaster provided important lessons learned and valuable input for decision-makers to the strategy and policy of the total elimination of forest and land fires in the following dry season.