Forests and fires

Forest fires play a natural and useful role in the life-cycle of a forest and its ecosystem. But fire can also have a devastating long-term effect on ecosystems that are not adapted to such patterns of burning. Frequent and large-scale fires, mainly caused by increased human activity, affect many forests and peatlands around the world. Tropical rainforests are at particular risk.

The scale of the problem

The impact of forest fires is increasing as the scale and frequency of such burning rises. In 1997 and 1998, millions of hectares of forest around the world caught fire during an intense El Niņo-related drought. The fires were so widespread and intense that even ecosystems that do not usually burn were badly damaged, such as the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, the cloud forest of Chiapas in Mexico, and the rainforests of Borneo. At the same time, smoke blanketed large areas of Southeast Asia, disrupting air and sea navigation and causing serious threats to public safety.

Major El Niņo related fires over the past two decades have devastated large areas of forest and caused significant economic costs both in Indonesia and in neighboring countries. In 2002 the fires returned. In Central Kalimantan the haze was so bad that incoming flights were cancelled and schools were closed for weeks. At one point the pollution index reached 1500, five times the highest danger category. Under those conditions even face-masks could not stop the haze's tiny particles penetrating deep into people's lungs.

The causes of long-term destruction

As already mentioned, human activity is the major cause of fire in the tropics. This includes burning to clear forests for the establishment of large plantations and small fires used in livelihood activities. As a result, fires can burn out of control in degraded landscapes and areas where there are no incentives for controlled burning.

In Sumatra in Indonesia, the major cause of the 1997 fires was determined to be the result of large scale land-clearing for the planting of fast-growing trees for pulpwood and oil palm. A secondary cause was the burning of forest for livelihood activities in peatlands. In East Kalimantan many fires were caused by small-scale agricultural and resource extraction activities.

The effects

Fires in tropical rainforests alter landscape and impact on the forest's composition, structure, flammability, regeneration and recovery potential. They also have the ability to affect wildlife, health, carbon stocks and emissions, and people's livelihood activities. In a mature forest, a fire might burn only the forest floor, destroying ground vegetation and young trees, but leaving the larger trees undamaged, because their thick bark protects them. In such circumstances the remaining forest can then regenerate very quickly. However, in very dry conditions, where plant debris provides a lot of fuel on the ground, the flames are hot enough to reach the forest canopy and then rapidly spread over large areas.

CIFOR's focus

Long-term prevention is better than a short-term cure. Putting out fires is costly and largely ineffective. CIFOR and the World Agroforestry Center are working to provide policy recommendations which will identify longer-term patterns and underlying causes of fires in several Indonesian provinces, and their impacts on Indonesia, its neighbours, and at the global scale. Issues receiving specific attention include the effect of fire on ecological resources and livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, carbon stocks and emissions, and further fire susceptibility and the recovery potential of the various landscapes. CIFOR is also exploring alternative livelihood options, institutional and socio-economic constraints, and opportunities for judicious land and fire management under different scenarios.

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is a leading international forestry research organization established in 1993 to address global concerns about the social, environmental and economic impacts of forest loss and degradation. CIFOR develops policies and technologies that improve sustainable forest management and reduce poverty among people who rely on tropical forests in developing countries. CIFOR is one of the 16 Future Harvest Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

CIFOR is based in Bogor, Indonesia, with regional offices in Brazil, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. It works with partners in over 30 other countries.