Indonesia: Fire in the Rubber Jungle…Fire Prevention and Sustainable Tree Crop Development in South Sumatra(IFFN No. 21 – September 1999)

Fire in the Rubber Jungle…
Fire Prevention and Sustainable Tree Crop Development in South Sumatra

(IFFN No. 21 – September 1999,p. 48-56)


This paper investigates the interactions between tree crop development and vegetation fires in South Sumatra. Since 1910, farmers have turned rice-based, slash-and-burn cultivation into rubber-based agroforestry, replacing the forest fallow with a mixture of rubber and other tree species. This system sustains densities of population up to 100 people per in a forest environment, with a limited use of fire.

Since the 1970s, new patterns of land use have been imposed by the government and private groups. Logging, transmigration, large-scale planting of oil palm and Acacia mangium have destroyed large areas of forest traditionally belonging to the local people. This has led to the increased use of fire in land clearing, land disputes, and the replacement of forests with fire-prone vegetation, especially Imperata cylindrica.

Fires affect tree crop farmers by destroying their plantations, their forest reserves, and making it more risky for them to invest into more productive rubber plantations using high-yielding clones. Participatory smallholder tree crop development programs could reduce the incidence of fires by limiting its use in large-scale land clearing, helping farmers to convert degraded forest into productive plantations with adequate control of Imperata cylindrica, while respecting the rights of local people to avoid land disputes.


Vegetation fires have existed in Indonesia for longer than records exist. However, it is mostly since 1982 that they have been identified as a repeated problem causing major environmental, economic and social losses to the Indonesian people, their neighbours and mankind as a whole.

The fires are eased by natural factors such as the long droughts associated to El Niño (occurring every three years during the last two decades, instead of every five years before: Fox 1998), and the existence of coal and peat deposits. The development of human activity in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and lately in Eastern Indonesia, has led to an increase of fire hazards and risks. Inadequate methods of logging and land clearing carried over a large scale, mostly by agro-industrial companies and transmigration projects, have left a patchwork of degraded forest covers that burn easily. Land acquisition by large agro-industrial companies without sufficient consideration for the rights of local people has led to land disputes, which are often solved or avenged through fire. These practices, which have warranted large short-term profits to the companies, are unlikely to change unless responsible land use policies are implemented.

Within such an agenda, there is a scope for involving tree crop smallholders, especially rubber farmers, in the prevention of vegetation fires. Smallholder tree crop farming represent the main land use type in the peneplains of Sumatra (especially in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra) and in parts of Kalimantan (especially in West and Southeast Kalimantan), covering about 10 million ha nation wide. Smallholders practice various land use types in a continuum including the exploitation of natural forests, the planting of mixed tree stands associating planted and natural species, and pure mono-crop plantations. They have a direct interest in preserving the forest and plantation cover and protecting it from the fires, as long as their long-term rights over the land are respected.

South Sumatra provides a good example of many of the changes in land use taking place in other regions. Having experienced these trends for a bit longer than most of the other Indonesian Provinces outside Java, South Sumatra provides insights of what could happen in the rest of the country if the present methods and policies were to be repeated in the future.


The present paper is based on the report of a study conducted between February and June 1999 for the Forest Fire and Prevention Control Project (FFPCP) and the International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CIRAD), France, as part of the Indonesian Forest Sector Support Programme (IFSSP) – a cooperation of the European Union and the Indonesian Department of Forestry and Plantations (see full report: Gouyon, 1999). The aim of the study was:

  • to assess the present status and trend of smallholder tree crop development in the areas of South Sumatra which have been most affected by land fires;

  • to analyze the interactions between tree crop development in South Sumatra and vegetation fires;

  • to recommend further studies and project interventions with a view to reduce vegetation fires by taking into account tree crop development.

Since rubber is the main smallholder tree crop in the areas of South Sumatra which have been the most affected by fires, the study concentrated mostly on smallholder rubber development. However, other aspects of tree crop development such as the fast progress of large estates, especially oil palm, as well as industrial forest plantations (HTI or Hutan Tanaman Industri) have also been investigated since they have direct consequences on smallholder tree crops and fires.

The study made use of the following materials:

  • existing studies on fires and tree crop development in Indonesia. The references include reports and articles by Amypalupy (1997), Bertault (1991), Byron and Shepherd (1998), Bromley (1998), Durand (1998), Ellen and Watson (1997), Gönner (1998), Potter and Lee (1998a,b), Saharjo (1997), Schindler (1998), Schweithelm (1998), Sunderlin (1998), Tomich et al. (1998), Wasson (1998), CIFOR, ICRAF (1998, 1999), the FFPCP project , the UNDAC mission (Claasen et al. 1998), the State Ministry for Environment and UNDP (1998), WALHI (1998) and the World Wildlife Fund (1998);

  • data on land use and socio-economic activity collected by the FFPCP as well as the experience of the Project on fire prevention and control since 1995 (see for example Anderson et al. 1999, Bompard 1997; IFSSP & FFPCP 1997; Nicolas 1999, Nicolas and Beebe 1999, Nicolas and Bowen 1999),

  • field visits and interviews carried during 4 weeks with farmers, village leaders, local officials, NGO leaders, and managers of agro-industrial companies and wood factories;

  • the experience and data gathered by the of the author, who studied smallholder tree crop development during 3 years in South Sumatra and other provinces of Indonesia (Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu and South Kalimantan) in 1988-1991, and has carried several studies on the same topic in Sumatra, Sulawesi and outside Indonesia since then (see for example Gouyon et al. 1993 & 1995, Gouyon 1995 & 1997).


The mission was carried through CIRAD (Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research and Development) in cooperation with the FFPCP team, the Provincial Forestry Bureau and the Sembawa Research Center (Indonesian Rubber Research Institute), under the supervision of the European Forest Liaison Office in Jakarta. The author extends warm acknowledgements to all the people who contributed to the mission. Special thanks are extended to Rod Bowen and Jean-Marie Bompard for their welcome and assistance during field visits, and to the team of the Sembawa Research Institute, especially Chairil Anwar, Gede Wibawa, Cicilia Nancy and Hasan Basri.

Results: Forest, Tree Crops, People and Fires in South Sumatra

1. From ladang to Jungle Rubber

Until the introduction of rubber, the inhabitants of the peneplains of South Sumatra lived from a combination of wet land rice, fruit trees planting and ladang. Ladang is based on rice cultivation after slashing, felling, and burning the forest. Rice is planted for one or two years with other temporary crops, then the field is abandoned to forest regrowth. The long fallow (20 years) regenerates the fertility accumulated in the biomass, which will be made available to the crops through the next burning. This system can sustain densities of population until 25 people per km2 at most; beyond such densities, fallows are shortened and invaded by grasses.

In South Sumatra, however, like in some other Provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan, rubber and agroforestry enabled farmers to go beyond these densities of population without endangering their environment. At the beginning of the century, rubber was introduced in Indonesia by traders, and farmers started planting it systematically in their ladang. The forest fallow was replaced by “jungle rubber”, a mixture of rubber, forest species and fruit trees which is equivalent, in terms of biodiversity and structure, to a secondary forest (Gouyon et al. 1993). After 30 to 40 years, when the trees cannot be tapped anymore, farmers can replant their rubber trees using the same method of slash-and-burn. Hence the system is sustainable.

Under the price conditions prevailing until now, rubber agroforestry enabled farmers to support one household of five people with about three hectares of plantations, with about 80% of the income coming from the sales of the latex, and the rest from the other species associated with rubber (Gouyon 1995, Gouyon 1999). The use of fire is very limited in this system; it is only used for the creation of new plantations and for replanting once every 30 or 40 years. Since jungle rubber has a dense canopy, similar to a secondary forest cover, it presents a low fire hazard – apart from the immature period (about 8 years) during which the young plantation is susceptible to fire (Tab.1).

2. Investors and Projects: Logging, Transmigration, Oil Palm and Acacia

For farmers, the possibility to secure a sufficient income with this system was linked with the possibility to create new plantations for the young expanding generation. Since rubber plantations are considered as individual property under traditional land rights, young farmers usually had to go away from their villages to create new plantations by clearing common forest land belonging to their tribe or marga. In 1983, however, the authority of the tribes was officially abolished and replaced by the government administrative structure that is still in place until now (Gouyon 1995, Bompard 1997).

This considerably weakened the control of farmers over their land, by suppressing the basis of their traditional land rights. The government did not recognize common rights of the tribe over land that is not permanently cultivated. Farmers lost their land reserves, which were increasingly allocated by the government to logging companies, transmigration projects or agro-industrial companies (especially oil palm plantations and industrial forestry or HTI). Since 1980, and moreover since 1990, the land use pattern changed dramatically in South Sumatra (Tab.2).

Transmigration allocated 850,000 ha to newcomers from Java, mostly since 1980. Most of them were supposed to grow food crops, but this soon proved unprofitable and unsustainable on the acid leached soils of the peneplains. The large areas cleared for transmigration by bulldozer were largely left unused or abandoned, and turned into Imperata grasslands, a major fire hazard. The transmigrants were lately allowed to plant tree crops and became one of the main beneficiaries of government assistance to grow oil palm or high-yielding rubber.

Logging companies, which activity developed quickly in the 1980s, turned vast areas into logged-over forests filled with waste that burns easily. In the 1990s, a new type of forestry developed in South Sumatra under the name of HTI, i.e. industrial forestry plantations using mostly fast-growing species like Acacia mangium (Tab.3). These plantations represent one of the major fire hazards in the Province, since they are planted with species that drop their leaves, dry up easily and are mixed with Imperata and bushy regrowth.

Agro-industrial corporations started developing oil palm at a fast rate in 1990 (Tab.4). Like HTI companies, they use fire for land clearing, and this is a major source of voluntary and accidental fires, since these large scale fires are difficult to control and often escape to neighbouring vegetation or plantations. HTI and plantation companies burn about 40,000 ha of land every year: despite contrary regulations, burning is still considered as the easiest and cheapest way to clear land.

Tab.1. Fire risk and hazard in various man-made and natural covers in South Sumatra (On a 0-10 scale from lower to higher degree of risk and hazard)

Source of ranking data: evaluation of the author based on interviews with farmers and experts.

Tab.2. Land allocated to transmigration, forestry and agro-industry in South Sumatra

  Source of data: Dinas Perkebunan, Kanwil Deptrans, Kanwil Kehutanan, and FFPCP.

Tab.3. Area under HTI (Industrial Forest Plantations) in South Sumatra

Source of data: FFPCP, data from HTI companies and Regional Forestry Office (June 1998)

Tab.4. The development of large plantations and smallholders in South Sumatra

Source of data: Dinas Perkebunan, excluding Nucleus Estates and Smallholders Projects. Other crops than Oil palm and rubber include mainly coconut, pepper and clove (in smallholdings), clove, pepper and cocoa (in large private plantations) and coconut, cocoa, tea, and cane (in State plantations).

3. Consequences on the smallholders economy

All together in South Sumatra, nearly 4 million ha of land or 35% of the total Province area were allocated to transmigration, logging and agro-industrial companies in less than 20 years – i.e. 200.000 ha per year in average. It would have been extremely difficult to sustain such a pace of land allocation while respecting environmental regulations and the local people’s rights. In most cases, the land allocated to projects and companies was considered by farmers as their common traditional property, and sometimes included smallholder plantations. This resulted in conflicts over land, in which fires are commonly used by both parties to drive the other one away or as revenge. Besides, farmers felt increasingly deprived of their land and alienated from the development process.

The government extended some assistance to the farmers to raise the income from their rubber plantations, although on a limited scale, reaching less than 10% of the smallholder planted area. These projects enabled the farmers to plant high-yielding rubber varieties or clones, which doubled the net income of the farmers per ha (Tab.5). These clonal plantations are usually maintained free of other species between the rubber trees, since the clones do not develop well with competing vegetation. These plantations, if they are maintained clean, represent a very low fire hazard. The beneficiaries usually have a high income (about 4 million Rp per ha per year) and are able to re-invest it in other clonal plantations.

Unfortunately, for the majority of farmers, who own less than 4 ha of rubber and are close to subsistence level, developing clones with their own means is too expensive and too risky. Their only solution to increase their income is to develop plantations in unoccupied areas. These areas are usually close to logged-over forests, transmigration and agro-industrial companies, which all represent major fire hazards. Hence, the young smallholder plantations in those areas are often destroyed by the fires.

Some of the non-project farmers, however, are trying to develop clones with their own means. They often face difficulties in controlling the growth of bushes and Imperata grasses between the young rubber. Hence, their young plantations are very prone to fire (see for example Gunawan 1997). It is estimated that about 40,000 ha of smallholder plantations burned in 1997, of which 6000 ha were young clonal plantations. The resulting loss can be estimated at 8.9 million dollars (Tab.6).

Tab.5. Average incomes (per ha and year) of farmers with jungle rubber and clonal rubber

Source of data: interviews with farmers.

*Rubber is processed by farmers into thick blocks of coagulated latex called “slabs”, which contain about 50% of dry rubber and 50% of water and dirt.
** World rubber prices have fallen since the Asian crisis because of the depreciation of the currency of the three major world producing countries (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, which represent 80% of the world rubber production). At the farmer level, rubber is sold 1500 Rp per wet kilo or 3000 Rp per dry kilo. The world price is around 50 US cents or 4000 Rp per kilo.

Tab.6. Estimation of the value of the plantation areas lost due to fires in 1997

* On the base of an exchange rate of 1 US$ = 8000 Rp

Source of data: Dinas Perkebunan and field interviews. The value of the plantations is calculated based on development costs and represents a low valuation. For smallholders, we have considered that the clonal plantations burnt were aged four years in average, and that the actual value was a bit lower than the costs calculated in Table 4 since the burnt plantations had probably been only partly weeded. For other immature smallholder plantations, we have made an estimation based on their costs of development until the age of four. For old jungle rubber, we have used the market value minus the price of the land itself. For large plantations, we have made an estimation based on the costs of development until the age of four with an average of rubber and oil palm plantation costs.

Discussion: Proposed policies and complementary studies

Since fire control is nearly impossible on large areas in Indonesia, fire prevention should be the priority. Sources of ignition linked with human negligence will always exist, hence the most efficient way to prevent fires is to reduce the large voluntary fires and the fire hazards.

1. Reducing the use of burning in land clearing

Zero-burning or limited burning for land clearing is used in several countries and has advantages and constraints. Under present socio-economic conditions, it would be far from the reach of any smallholder, because it entails the use of heavy mechanical engines, as well as chemical fertilizers to replace the nutrients made available from the biomass by burning. Indonesian companies could use zero-burning or limited burning methods, but they consider them as expensive, unpractical and not well adapted to the Indonesian context (Tab.7).

This means that there is still a need to develop and promote a method of land clearing with zero-burning or limited burning adapted to the Indonesian conditions. This could be done by research institutes working in cooperation with selected private firms.

In all cases, however, land clearing with zero or limited burning should be used only on degraded forest covers which are abundant in Indonesia, no more land clearing of primary or old secondary forest should be considered. Degraded forest covers are usually easier to clear without burning than old, untouched forests, hence this means that there is a good potential to develop new methods of land clearing that would be adapted to Indonesia and respectful of the environment.

Tab.7. Advantages (+) and constraints (-) of burning and Zero-Burning in land clearing

Source of information: Ling and Mainstone (1983), IOPRI (1998), Yew et al. (1998), D. Boutin (pers.comm.), A.Vincent (pers.comm).

2. Helping farmers to fight Imperata cylindrica

For smallholders who cannot use zero-burning because of the cost constraints, the amount of biomass burnt during land clearing could be gradually reduced in the long run by promoting the use of rubber wood (see Ministry of Forestry, Ardes and Enso 1998, Nandika et al. 1989). This could be done by identifying group of farmers with a good potential to sell their rubber wood to furniture factories in and around Palembang.

The income from the sales should be used freely by smallholders, with technical assistance to purchase planting material and inputs to develop high-yielding clonal plantations free of bushes and Imperata, hence reducing the fire hazard. The Sembawa research center has already initiated a project in that direction with the local rubber wood factories and the plantation services, and such initiatives need to be supported.

Extending financial assistance to smallholders who have planted clones and who find it difficult to maintain their plantations free of undergrowth and Imperata cylindrica remains by far the main way to reduce fire hazard in rubber plantations while raising the income of the farmers. This could be done by setting up a credit fund extended to smallholders for cleaning their plantations, especially when invaded by Imperata and during El Niño years.

3. Democratic land-use policies with more room for smallholder tree crops

Finally, the only lasting way to reduce the incidence of fires in Indonesia is to promote reforms of land use policies. At the National Level, better concertation is needed to integrate all aspects of development into national policies, including forestry, plantations, environment and socio-economic concerns, and to take into account the needs of local populations.

Smallholder tree crop development programs like the ones funded in the past by the World Bank and the ADB until recently should be revived. These projects provide a unique way to improve the capacity of smallholders to sustain themselves in the long run from high-yielding plantations while creating an environment free of fire hazards.

Oil palm could also be developed as a smallholder tree crop using participatory methods (Boutin and Girseng 1998). This would have the advantage to increase the income of farmers who would then be in a better way to control Imperata cylindrica and hence limit fire hazards, while reducing their resentment towards large oil palm plantations leading to arson by fire.

Such projects, however, should be carried with precautions in the choice of beneficiaries and the land allocation process, to avoid the concentration of all the project benefits to a few well-connected villagers controlling land access.

At the Local level, the capacity of the local institutions to develop mapping and participatory land use planning should be increased and the results should be used as the basis for project interventions.


Anne Gouyon
Forest Fire and Prevention Control Project (FFPCP) and
International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CIRAD), France
Department of Forestry and Plantations, South Sumatra Regional Forestry Office and European Union
Dep. Kehutanan & Perkebunan KanWil Propinsi Sumatra Selatan
Jl. Kolonel H. Burlian Punti Kayu Km 6.5, PO Box 1229
Palembang 30000, Sumatera Selatan


Country Notes
IFFN No. 21

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