Forest Fires:

Logging, Clearance the Major Culprits


The Crisis

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests have been consumed by forest fires in Southeast Asia in the current drought. The worst fires have been in the Indonesian provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Smoke from the fires has affected areas as far afield as Thailand and the Philippines.

Smoke has caused severe breathing difficulties throughout the region, particularly for infants, the aged and those in poor health. It is not clear how many people have died as a result.

In Indonesian Kalimantan and Sumatra, a disaster was declared as visibility reached zero in some areas and government officials admitted that pollution levels were so high they could not be measured. In the Malaysian State of Sarawak, a state of emergency continued as air pollution index hit 655, on a scale where anything over 100 is regarded as unsafe.

Poor visibility due to the fires has been blamed for air crashes and for at least three collision of ships in the region, one of which is believed to have claimed 29 lives. An air crash in Sumatra claimed the lives of over 200 people at the height of the smoke-haze.

The droughts which helped create the conditions which have lead to the forest fires have also caused concerns in Indonesia of widespread famine, with the lives of more than 300,000 at risk.

The Causes

Media reports have pointed to the El Nino-induced drought and illegal fires as the reasons for the fires. However, there is no doubt that logging and clearance for plantations are also to blame.

From late 1982 to mid-1983, fires raged through the rainforests of East Kalimantan, in the largest fire in recorded history. The authoritative Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests (p.151) reports that "the fire started during the drought in fields of farmers who had moved in after logging. It was able to spread quickly in areas where dead, dry remains of forest trees littered the forest floor". The Atlas also reports that "logging in Indonesia leaves behind large quantities of debris that represent a serious fire risk during periods of drought" (p.151).

The Indonesian government, however, is unlikely to admit responsibility. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of People's Welfare, Azwar Anas was quoted by the Indonesian Suara Pembaruan evening daily as saying no one can seek compensation from Indonesia for the haze because it was caused by the El Nino phenomenon.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sept 29) said that "Some of the fires are accidental and all are made worse by the unusually dry weather, influenced by the El Nino effect. But the real cause of the fires is the greed of plantation and forestry companies, both Indonesian and Malaysian, which have used fires as a cheap and often illegal way to clear land."

After the fires of 1994, Indonesia passed laws against setting forest fires. They have been largely ignored by the big plantation companies. The Herald editorial expressed doubts over whether the plantation companies would be punished because of their "closeness to the Indonesian political leadership".

Orang-utan habitat threatened

An article by Leigh Dayton in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sept 23) reported that the fires were "devastating the last refuges of one of the most endangered primates on Earth, the orang-utan".

Orang-utans are found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where the fires have been at their worst. Borneo is the name given to the island which comprises the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan.

The Herald article quoted WWF's international director-general, Dr Claude Martin, as saying the Indonesian fires were "an extreme case of man-made disaster,". In addition to the orangutans, other forest-dwelling animals and birds are struggling as the fires destroy their habitat.

Papua New Guinea

People in Papua New Guinea have been cautioned against lighting bush fires to clear land on their drought-ravaged on their crop gardens.

In the country’s Western Province, a camp housing more than 600 people from the neighbouring Indonesian province of Irian Jaya province, has reportedly been destroyed by bush fires. Fears are held for the possible impact of fires on PNG’s extensive rainforest.

Sources: -- Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forest: Asia and the South Pacific, Edited byCollins, Sayer and Whitmore, Macmillan, London, 1992.
-- Media reports

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