Fires: Stop Blaming, Start Acting

Luca Tacconi, author of a new report on fires in Indonesia, says itis time to revise legislation and create effective social partnerships to solve the fireproblem rather than just allocating the blame.

Each year, from February to March and August to October, the hazethat disrupts social and economic activities in Indonesia also brings with it conflictingaccusations of blame. The game of allocating blame for the fires that cause haze repeatsitself as regularly as the fires themselves.

But accusations achieve little –– it time to stop blamingand start acting. Existing technology makes the identification of the hot spots easy. TheBogor based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has compared satelliteinformation from the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency with Indonesianland-use maps. CIFOR’s research clearly shows that more than three-quarters of thehot-spots recorded in West and Central Kalimantan during August occurred in oil palmplantations, timber plantations and forest concessions.

So, what action is needed to address the fire problems?

First, we need to recognize there are different types of fires andthat not all fires are problematic. There are fires that generate significant amounts ofhaze and those that generate much less. There are land-clearing fires lit on purpose forthe establishment of plantations, which do not create significant haze if they are not onpeat land. And there are fires burning out of control in areas that are supposed to bemaintained as forests, such as those that occurred in East Kalimantan in 1997/98.

These critical differences are not recognised in the Indonesianlegislation (Regulation 4/2001) that forbids all forest and land fires. The legislationshould be reviewed so that only harmful and unwanted fires are banned. In this way, thelimited resources available to prevent and suppress fires could be used to for the reallyproblematic fires. Certainly, this is not a revolutionary recommendation. Malaysia andother countries allow prescribed fires.

Peat lands and haze

Burning peat land contributed up to 90% of the smoke hazeexperienced during the catastrophic fires in 1997-98. We are seeing the same thinghappening again in 2002. Over seventy-five percent of the hot spots identified on peatland in West and Central Kalimantan in August were on oil palm plantations, timberplantations and forest concessions.

Recent media reports have regularly cited how the smoke haze isparticularly affecting Pontianak. This is hardly surprising when you consider Pontianak isalmost surrounded by peat lands and oil palm and timber plantations. Just as theGovernment has already legislated against the development of lands with peat deeper thanthree meters, so should it legislate against the use of fires for land-clearing on peatlands .

But just changing the laws won’t blow away the haze. The lawsneed to be enforced, and this is not occurring. This is not because fires are difficult tomonitor and police. The fires now occurring in Indonesia are usually described as‘forest fires’, giving the impression they are burning in remote andinaccessible areas. But this is not true. The fact that over seventy-five percent of thehot spots identified on peat land in West and Central Kalimantan were on oil palmplantations, timber plantations and forest concessions means that there are roads toaccess the areas. Inspections by government officials and the collection of evidence toprosecute those using fire illegally are viable.

Once the law is revised, the Government must take firm actionagainst companies that use fire illegally. This would show the Government is serious inenforcing the legislation and in implementing the recently signed ASEAN Agreement onTransboundary Haze Pollution . The Government also needs to get tough with Governmentofficials who seek to gain by turning a blind eye to illegal burning activities.


While at the moment it is clear large companies are mostlyresponsible for the fires and haze currently affecting the region, this does notnecessarily mean large companies will always be the only ones responsible. The 1997-98experience shows that at least in some areas such as South Sumatra and East Kalimantan,small-scale livelihood activities by villagers in peat swamp areas were responsible forsome of the haze-generating fires.

Dealing with these sources of ignition will be even more complexthan with those involving large companies. Small-scale livelihood activities by villagersare more disperse than those of companies, more difficult to monitor, and legislatedchanges to burning practices are virtually impossible to enforce. In these cases, onlycommunity-based initiatives have any likelihood of succeeding.

So, what are the costs of inaction?

According to a new CIFOR report funded by the European Commission,smoke haze in 1997-98 affected millions of people and cost Indonesia and its neighboursaround US $800 million.

In addition to economic and social costs from smoke haze in1997-98, fires cost $2.5 billion to Indonesia, arising from burnt timber and other losses.Of this, East Kalimantan suffered losses totalling $2 billion. The figure for this seasonis not likely to be as high. Nevertheless, the question remains, how high must it bebefore the Indonesian Government, industry, NGOs and community groups begin workingtogether to halt this environmental, economic and social disaster?