[Table of Contents]

[Global Issues and International Impact]


Seeking Solutions to Fires in Southeast Asia


In late 1997 and early 1998, the world watched with horror and sadness as fires ravaged millions of acres of tropical forest in Indonesia. The destruction cut a swath across the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, producing a blanket of smoke that exposed millions of people to serious health hazards, jeopardised air travel safety and caused huge economic losses throughout the region.

Although fire-related projects were not part of the centre’s official work plan, the disaster occurring in its own "backyard" prompted major concern by CIFOR, which has been active in efforts to address the problem. Ongoing research into the underlying causes of deforestation enabled CIFOR to comment authoritatively on the impacts of the fires on forests in Indonesia. Members of staff were invited to participate in numerous meetings and conferences concerning the fires, and were involved in efforts by Indonesia and other countries to develop strategies for dealing with the issue.

Regularly updated position statements and other background information were posted on CIFOR’s Web site. As a result, CIFOR gained considerable media interest and public exposure as a source of independent scientific information on the situation. A documentary produced by the BBC included extensive comments by CIFOR researcher Dr. William Sunderlin.

With support from the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), UNESCO and the European Commission Joint Research Centre, CIFOR in 1998 compiled an important background report, titled A Review of Forest Fire Projects in Indonesia: 1982-98. It summarises major fires that have occurred in Southeast Asia over the past two decades, prevalent ideas about their causes and effects, and a wide range of projects to address the problem.

As long ago as the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese and Dutch explorers recorded large fires in the forests and peat swamps of Borneo, accompanied by a choking haze that extended as far as the present location of Singapore. More recently, significant fires in the region occurred periodically in the 1980s and ’90s. But experts concurred that the fires of 1997-98 were particularly damaging, because severe drought associated with the recurrent El Niņo-Southern Oscillation phenomenon coincided with an expansion of land clearing for plantations.

The fire report issued by CIFOR showed that before 1994, governments and agencies around the world provided assistance mainly in the form of short-term emergency aid, management support, and technical equipment and training. The more severe recent fires, however, have led to calls for concentrated efforts to understand and address the underlying causes.

In late 1997, an intensive multinational initiative began that entailed using high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor fire outbreaks and map burnt areas. As the fires raged, the Internet provided a means of rapid dissemination of up-to-date information about the environmental disaster to scientists, government officials, journalists, donors and the public at large. Numerous other projects have addressed fire-fighting capabilities, policy implications and other issues.

At the year’s end, scientists from CIFOR and ICRAF met with representatives of the U.S. Government to plan an in-depth, three-year study of the causes and effect of the fires, to be financed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development. A combination of remote sensing and local social studies will be done to help analyse the causes of the fires and provide the basis developing better fire control programmes.

Initial studies will be done at two sites where the 1997-98 forest fire were prevalent, Lampung in Sumatra and East Kalimantan.

The U.S. Forest Service will coordinate the acquisition of remote sensing data, while CIFOR and ICRAF will do on the ground research to corroborate the data, determine land use practices and investigate social factors that may have contributed to the fires. Eventually, such work will be expanded to investigate more deeply the underlying causes of the fires.