Indonesia on fire again … and again?

The fires in Indonesia have made global headlines—but this is a decades-old, recurring problem that needs long-term solutions.
Researchers use geo-radar technology to measure peat depth in the Tumbang Nusa research forest outside Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

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The fires in Indonesia have been raging for more than two months, creating a toxic haze that has blanketed much of the country and spread across  neighboring regions. Rains in the past week have provided a little welcome relief, but the crisis is far from over.

Most of the fires in Central Kalimantan are blazing in former peatland forests, which have been drained, cleared and burned for oil palm and agriculture, at large and small scales.  The dried-out peat ignites easily and burns underground; the fire then creeps along under the surface.

Peatlands are made up of decomposed forest debris. They have been around for thousands of years and are home to thousands of plants and animals, including endangered keystone species such as the orangutan.

“In their natural state, the land here is covered in lush tropical forest and they are essentially bogs and watered all year round,”said David Gaveau, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“But when you drain them, when you remove the forest, the peat itself becomes exposed to sunlight and it dries out, and that’s what burns.”

Gaveau points out that Indonesia now has millions and millions of hectares of degraded, fire-prone land, meaning it burns every year, even without El Niño.

“All it takes is a few weeks, a few months of drought, and you get these fires started,” Gaveau said.


Gaveau visited Central Kalimantan in October, along with other experts, to conduct a workshop and field training with partners from the local government and university. Using the latest technology, the experts measured, among other things, the depth of the peat.

“If we know the volume of peat, and if it is exposed to fire like we are seeing here, we will see how the depth will be affected and the amount of carbon that will be released by the fire,” said Daniel Murdiyarso, a principal scientist at CIFOR.

All it takes is a few months of drought, and you get these fires started

David Gaveau

Experts warn that millions of tons of carbon dioxide stored deep inside the peat could be released if it continues to be disturbed, either by development for farming or by fire. Carbon dioxide is the biggest driver of climate change today. A 2010 report suggests that 85 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from land-use activities—and 27 percent of that is due to peat fires alone.

“A very deep peatland has the potential to release a very large amount of carbon gases, greenhouse gases,” said Neil Terry, a graduate research assistant at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, one of the team in the field.

“So, if we have very detailed information on the thickness of peat, we know for instance, the importance of protecting certain areas over others.”

Gaveau says the only way to stop this cycle is to re-wet these dry peatlands, to bring them back to hydrological equilibrium, and restore the natural vegetation. Only then will uncontrolled peatland fires stop.


The scientists also demonstrated equipment that measures smoke content at the source of a 5,000-hectare lake of fire about 30 kilometers from the city. A first survey picked up high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, two major greenhouse gases, as well as toxic carbon monoxide.

More worrying is that ammonia was also detected.

“Normally, I think a relatively safe limit is 50 micrograms per meter cubed,” said Martin Wooster, Professor of Earth Observation Science at King’s College London and the National Centre for Earth Observation. “The meteorological department here are reporting values of 1,000 or even 2,000 micrograms per meter cubed, which is absolutely extreme—and not only for just a single day either but going on for weeks or even possibly months.

“This is clearly an absolutely apocalyptic scene.”

The short-term effects on human health are seen daily in Palangka Raya, the provincial capital. The government has opened an oxygen clinic for the public, schools have closed, and plans are underway to evacuate people at high risk, mainly children and the elderly. For local people, this isn’t some distant news story, it’s their daily reality.

“Many children are suffering from ISPA. And that’s according to the government and local media, so it is very costly in terms of health,” said Hendrik Segah, a researcher and expert in environmental resources and remote sensing at Palangka Raya University.

“Then in terms of the economy, the fires are hurting farmers: they can’t get a good harvest and then transport costs too have risen,” he added.

Participants at the workshop say scientific research can help all stakeholders make informed decisions about the future of Central Kalimantan in a changing climate.

This is an absolutely apocalyptic scene

Martin Wooster


Satellite thermal imaging is used to pinpoint fires and track their movement. Images acquired the same day the scientists were in the area revealed a 20-kilometer wall of fire, moving menacingly toward Kalambangan forest, home to thousands of the world’s last orangutans.

Seasonal rains will come, eventually, although El Niño is delaying them, and they will put an end to this year’s fires. But the fires are symptomatic of deeper problems. The root causes of Indonesia’s crisis of fire and haze are complex. Unless these are dealt with the risk of such gigantic conflagrations could rise.

For more information on this topic, please contact David Gaveau at d.gaveau@cgiar.org.
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Peatlands Wetlands Fire & haze Indonesian Wetlands