Interactive web map makes facts behind Sumatra fires transparent

New tool gives people the capacity to fact check media coverage on fires.

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BOGOR, Indonesia — A new online mapping tool designed to reveal the impact of forest fires burning throughout the Indonesian province of Riau in Sumatra allows users to explore and validate preliminary data.

The interactive fire risk tool, developed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows the location of NASA’s fire alerts in June 2013, burned areas (brown fire scars) mapped by CIFOR using high-resolution views from the Landsat 8 satellite, and compelling before-and-after fire satellite views of the Riau region, the area worst affected by fires.

“So many claims about the Sumatra fires are swirling in the popular media – this tool gives people the capacity to check for themselves,” said Agus Salim, who developed the web-based application.

Unlike major Sumatra forest fires in 1982-1983, 1997-1998 and 2006, it appears that the fires of June 2013 did not burn in natural forests, said David Gaveau, a scientist with CIFOR’s forests and environment program.

In other words, the fires are burning in plantation forests where they may have been set purposely in rotation as a method of boosting crop production on oil palm plantations and timber plantations – a practice known as swidden – or slash-and-burn agriculture.

“We need to exert caution – we cannot tell the cause of the fires from imagery alone – field investigations will be required,” Gaveau said. “A web-based application such as this one is useful because government officials and civil society can check the location, shape and size of the fire scars, whether the fires occured in moratorium areas, concessions or in vegetation cover before-and-after-fire – crucial information for field investigations.”

The fires have affected areas under protective government moratorium and burned mostly on peatlands, increasing the risk of high-level greenhouse gas emissions, Gaveau said.

Images from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite show that Riau appeared to have been worst-hit since fires in Sumatra started causing haze problems over Singapore and Malaysia.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact David Gaveau at

This research is carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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