Playing With Fire in Indonesia’s Peatlands

On the outskirts of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, a farmer looks at his wilting garden and then to the yellow sky. He has tied a scarf around his nose and mouth to protect his lungs, but the haze is inescapable. It hangs in the air, sinks into the soil, and contaminates the Kahayan River. Palangkaraya is not the only place to suffer. The haze reaches out from the burning peatlands of Indonesia to stretch across the Southeast Asian region, producing international backlash against the Indonesian government for allowing land practices to cause the conflagrations.

Indonesia’s peatland wildfires become more common and more devastating with each passing decade. The smoldering peat belches an immense yellow haze containing large particulate matter and carbon into the atmosphere. Long-term health effects of persistent haze on humans are not well-known, but respiratory problems, skin irritations, and even death has been linked to the burnings. The haze descends on waterways used for drinking, bathing, and, in Kalimantan, transportation. Smoke particles settle on crops and fruits, affecting the nutrition intake of human and non-human animals alike. Commercial industries suffer reduced crop yields and transportation woes, and the tourist sector dips not only in Indonesia, but in the entire Southeast Asian region. The World Bank has credited the 2015 wildfires with costing $15.7 billion dollars in damage.

Swidden farmers in the humid tropics have long used fire for forest management. Swidden agriculture involves clearing patches of forested land, oftentimes using fire, for small-scale farming. These practices are now named as a top threat to Kalimantan’s dried peatlands alongside plantation burning. It is swidden farmers, according to the Indonesian government and some researchers, who ignite the fires that grow into unstoppable wildfires. Some researchers have been surprised by the carelessness and apparent unawareness with which Kalimantan farmers torch their land for swidden clearing. But these fire practices predate the wildfires now raging through Kalimantan’s forests. Fire clearing belies a cultural history lived in a different type of ecosystem with a different hydrology. Formerly, farmers lit fires in humid forests that tended to offer little opportunity to spread far. Playing with fire might not have been a risky habit until recently. The drainage and deforestation occurring in Kalimanatan as a result of the fires have disrupted the island’s hydrology. Now, previously swampy forests have become unpredictable, fuel-rich fire traps.

Combustible Swamps

Humid peatlands have been a hot topic landscape in conservation and international news. International conservation and environmental groups care about these lowland swamps because they took tens of thousands of years to form and are irreplaceable. Indonesia harbors the most tropical peat in the world, a third of which are in Kalimantan. Furthermore, the various ecosystems of the Indonesian archipelago, including peatland swamps, boast some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet, with 10% of the world’s plants, 12% of the world’s mammals, and 17% of the world’s bird species. Together, Kalimantan and Sumatra host some of the world’s most famous charismatic megafauna: orangutans, elephants, tigers, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, crocodiles, dolphins, and dugongs. A variety of lorises, tarsiers, and fruit bats navigate forests where thousands of endemic orchids flourish.

A burnt out tree stands where an entire forest used to in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The land has been destroyed by poor farming practices, illegal logging and fires, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. Wikimedia Commons.

A burnt out tree stands where an entire forest used to in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The land has been destroyed by poor farming practices, illegal logging and fires, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. Wikimedia Commons.

Peatlands also impact global warming because they act as a major carbon sink. This helpful role is reversed by fire; once alight, dried peatlands are highly flammable and difficult to extinguish. They release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and smoldering fires burn for long periods of time. Today Indonesia is the fifth largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, primarily because of deforestation and forest degradation. When wildfires engulfed Indonesia in 1997, the minister of forestry conceded that 80% of the fires had been started deliberately by palm oil and timber companies clearing land.

Even before the fires are lit, peatlands begin emitting their carbon stores when land conversion begins, usually with clear-cutting and draining. Selective logging that removes just a few large trees per hectare can reduce the canopy up to 50%, leaving the wet forest floor vulnerable to the drying rays of the equatorial sun. Clear-cutting dries the ground even more quickly, leaving organic litter and peat as excellent fuel. Throughout the 1990s, deforested areas of Borneo suffered fire densities that were fifteen times higher than forested areas. Additionally, draining ditches are useful for both loggers and palm plantations, but disastrous for peatland hydrology. Loggers transport timber along the canals, while plantations use them to convert swampy wetlands to suitable commercial land. They need not create large canals to significantly change the environment; a canal a meter wide and deep can drain enough water to effectively change peat forest hydrology.

Peatland Politics

Land clearing in Indonesia has a long history stretching to the Dutch colonial past when plantations were established. But deforestation accelerated dramatically following Indonesian independence and especially during President Suharto’s New Order government that held power from 1966 to its downfall in 1998. During this tumultuous era of adjustment to independence, the government opened access to forests in order to promote broad economic development. President Suharto placed forested lands, 75% of the archipelago’s entire land area, under direct control of the centralized Ministry of Forestry, which showed little care for sustainable practices . Since the 1950s, forested land has declined to comprise an estimated 50% of land area–a result of average annual deforestation rates of 1.7 million hectares from 1985 to 1997. The end of Suharto’s government was marked by the catastrophic fires of 1997-1998, though deforestation by no means subsided following Suharto’s forced resignation in 1998. More than 6.02 million hectares of forests have been lost between 2000 and 2012.

Deforestation in Indonesia has been rapid and overwhelming, altering the forests into unstable landscapes for small-scale farmers. Drainage canals, drought, and land clearance through logging and burning result in peatlands that are no longer wet. Dry seasons following the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) tend to be followed by catastrophic wildfires in Indonesia.While droughts, including the ENSO, have been historically present in Indonesia, the frequency, duration, and intensity have been increasing since 1976. Droughts interact with changing land use strategies to ensure that degraded forests are less able to withstand dry periods. Swidden fires, plantation fire clearing, and even discarded cigarettes have all been blamed for igniting the forests. A first fire will burn dried leaves and thin-barked trees, which then die and fall to the forest floor as fuel for future fires. With more fuel, subsequent fires burn with more ferocity, killing even larger trees and reducing the canopy further. Ferns, grasses, and vines take advantage of the new sunlight and add even more fuel to the forest floor. This cycle of deforestation, drainage, and fires is disconnecting the link between ENSO-driven droughts and fires, increasing the risk of wildfire not just during El Niño dry seasons, but during normal dry seasons as well. In tropical peatlands, fires and droughts create a lethal feedback mechanism that ensures an ever-growing fuel load for future fires.

A palm oil concession in Riau Province, Sumatra. The trees have been clear-cut and a drainage canal runs along the right side of the road. Palm oil is found in most processed snacks, many brands of milk, and almost all toiletries. It comes under many names, including palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, stearate, and even vegetable oil. <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Riau_palm_oil_2007.jpg" target="_blank"><em>Wikimedia Commons</em></a>.

A palm oil concession in Riau Province, Sumatra. The trees have been clear-cut and a drainage canal runs along the right side of the road. Palm oil is found in most processed snacks, many brands of milk, and almost all toiletries. It comes under many names, including palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, stearate, and even vegetable oil. Wikimedia Commons.

Redesigning peatland hydrology is hazardous. Palm plantations and loggers succeeded in draining swaths of swampland, but in the process they created landscapes of desiccation. The commercial domination of peatlands as resource has proven perilous as peatlands are prone to wildfires capable of destabilizing economies and ruining livelihoods. Fire management and firefighting have been ineffective. The only remedy to wildfires spanning the archipelago is an uncontrollable and increasingly unpredictable form of water: rain. Rain dampens the ground fires and the haze, bringing reprieve to the flora and fauna of the Southeast Asian region. Yet the feedback cycles in forest microclimates caused by canopy loss are even destabilizing rain patterns to reduce regional rainfall. Forest knowledge, agricultural cycles, weather patterns, livelihoods–none are stable. Attempts to control the waters in immense patches of peatlands have led to runaway feedback cycles of dryness, conflagration, and toxic air. For dried peatlands, there may be no distinction between the practices of swidden burning and plantation burning: a swidden farmer’s torch can ignite the forest just as easily as a plantation worker’s. Today, even private farmers’ fires spread easily in parched forests.

Restoring the Swamps

Indonesia’s 2015 wildfires were an ecological disaster and, according to the spokesperson for Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency, a crime against humanity. Flames scorched the landscape from June until alleviating rains arrived in October, calming the raging fires into smoldering embers. Stricter laws against burning are unlikely to mitigate fire clearing unless there is increased enforcement. Preparing land by burning is already illegal for companies, but the lack of resources for law enforcement renders legal strictures ineffective. Once the wildfires spread, only rain can smother them.

One proposal to mitigate deforestation and halt forest fires has called for the restoration of moisture to peatlands by blocking drainage ditches. These small canals are easily blocked, but they are just as easily restored, highlighting the need for community involvement. Following the 2015 wildfires, Indonesian President Joko Widodo prioritized peatland restoration. Founded in 2016, the Peatland Restoration Agency aims to restore two million hectares of peatlands in Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Papua by 2020. The Agency’s plan involves working with communities to block canals, re-vegetating burned landscapes, and rezoning critical areas that include plantation concessions.

The effects of wildfires cross national boundaries and fire prevention requires a multinational solution. Humans are an enduring part of peatland environments in Indonesia, but it seems that plantation-style agriculture that does not rely on sustaining itself in one area for generations has altered the swamps irreparably. Swidden agriculturalists whose ancestors have farmed in the forests for centuries can no longer depend on the capricious forests that spew out toxic air.

Featured Image: The 2015 wildfire haze covers Sumatra and Borneo. Red spots indicate detected fires. NASA, September 24, 2015.

Shannyn Kitchen is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose research deals with rainforest conservation in Bornean national parks. She is interested in political ecology, resource management, community and indigenous rights, forest conservation, and (eco)-tourism. Contact

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