Ind 1988

Forest fires: logging is to blame

By Heri Achmadi, in Inside Indonesia,
April 1988

Huge forest fires are a new phenomenon in Indonesia, and logging practices are probably to blame

This article from 1988 is posted by Rob Wesley-Smith because of the incredible similarities to the present situation, and because we can see that the Indonesian government has so far failed to learn from past errors and denial practices. Again the results are an ecological catastrophe, but will Suharto fall on his sword?

Forest fires raged out of control in 37 locations in Indonesia late in 1987, threatening a repeat of the ‘Great Fire of Borneo’ which devastated large areas of the island of Kalimantan in 1982/83. The fires began in early September 1987 in Kalimantan and spread to 30 locations in its east and central regions, according to satellite pictures monitored in Jakarta. The whole island was covered in a thick layer of smoke, and flights to the southern and eastern towns of Palankaraya and Samarinda were grounded.

But huge fires also raged in Sumatra, East Timor and Sulawesi, as well as mountain areas of Java, fanned by strong winds and fuelled by a prolonged Dry season.

Worst fire ever

Four years ago, a fire which rampaged through Kalimantan for nine months before being dousd by monsoon rains, destroyed 3.6 million hectares of Rainforest, an area 56 times the size of Singapore. At that time the Indonesian officials were slow to admit the extent of the catastrophe, described by the Paris-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as the worst forest fire in recorded history, and the biggest ecological disaster in the 20th century. In its wake, however, the Indonesian government promised to institute an early warning system and a fleet of aircraft equipped for fire fighting, to prevent any repetition of the blaze. This time, reports of the fires in Kalimantan hit the Indonesian press as early as mid-September, mainly because the outbreaks affected plantations and transmigration villages. Hundreds of hectares of oil palms were burned to a crisp, and at least three settlement sites wiped out, Antara reported, making more than 2,000 people homeless.

So far, Indonesian officials have acknowledged the destruction of 2,000 hectares of plantations and settlement areas in Kalimantan. However, German scientist Johann Goldammer, who returned to Germany after visiting Kalimantan in early October, claimed that two million hectares of forest had already been destroyed. Forestry chief for East Kalimantan, Malik, denied that the fires were burning in the jungles as well. ‘No forest has been destroyed’, he told the daily Kompas in the third week of September. But satellite maps and eye-witness acounts point to widespread fires in Kalimantan and many other Indonesian islands.

Among the casualties were part of a 65,000 hectare natural orchid park in the Kutai regency in East Kalimantan, the only natural orchid conservation area in the world. In South Sumatra a 4,600 hectare reafforestation site, as well as hundreds of hectares of oil palm, were burned out.

But in spite of the early acknowledgement of the fires, officials seem as helpless to control them as they were in 1983. Antara noted one lone pilot dropping ‘water bombs’ on the flames in East Kalimantan at the end of September, but reported that a shortage of water and funds might ground even that operation.

Forestry officials also complained to Antara that the fires were too widespread to be affected by ‘water bombs’. Pelita Air Service, which leased the one fire-fighting aircraft to the government, complained that as soon as its pilot doused the flames in one place, they would break out in another.

Why so many fires?

As in 1982, forestry officials were quick to point the finger of blame at nomadic tribesmen practising ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, combined with the ‘El Nino Southern Oscillation Event’. El Nino, a cyclical visitation in the Pacific, brings westerly winds and exceptionally dry weather, and caused severe drought which precipitated the disaster four years ago.

But if drought and careless tribesmen are to blame, why have uncontrolled and extensive blazes occurred only in recent years, while slash-and-burn, and presumably El Nino, have been around for centuries?

German scientists at the University of Hamburg have speculated that El Nino is getting worse because deforestation and subsequent erosion are affecting the delicate balance of air currents and surface water in coastal areas of Asia.

But there is even more evidence that logging provides the conditions which turn a drought-parched forest into combustible tinder.

A Rainforest is one of the wettest places on earth, and even in a drought there is little undergrowth to feed a fire. A fire may move quickly through a forest, scarring the trees but actually killing few of them. In the 1983/83 fire, although 800,000 hectares of primary forest was burned, HALF the trees in it survived the fire to regenerate themselves, a study by the German Forest Inventory Service showed.

However in the 1.4 million hectares of logged-over forest affected, the fire burned longer and hotter – fuelled by the waste wood and debris left on the forest floor, and almost ALL of the remaining trees were destroyed. In addition, the heat set off coal and peat fires under the surface, which continued burning for months, and spread the burn to new areas.

Loggers usually take only five to seven trees per hectare, but damage – and leave lying around as tinder – about 40% of the remaining timber in the process.

Only after the forest fires have burned out will it be possible to estimate the real extent of the damage, and the value of the plantation crops and forest that has been destroyed.


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