Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Runaway Fires, Smoke-Haze Pollution, and Unnatural Disasters in Indonesia*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Runaway Fires, Smoke-Haze Pollution, and Unnatural Disasters in Indonesia*

Article excerpt

Tropical deforestation is continuing at a rapid rate. Between 1990 and 2000, close to 1 percent of the remaining natural tropical-forest cover of the world, or about 14.2 million hectares, was lost annually, according to a recent global survey, which found that conversion of tropical forest to permanent agriculture accounted for the bulk of the loss (FAO 2001). In addition, vast tracts of forest have been fragmented and degraded. Expanding road networks are a major cause of forest fragmentation, and they also open up intact forests to the depredations of pioneer farmers, loggers, hunters, invasive plant and animal species, and drought and fire. Especially in recent decades, as Johann Goldammer observes, anthropogenic fire has emerged as "a major driving force in the depletion and savannization of tropical forests" (1999, 1782). Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Indonesia, where fires during prolonged droughts have destroyed enormous tracts of rain forest and other vegetation. In addition to their destructive impact on forest resources, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples' homelands, out-of-control fires yield huge quantities of smoke. In 1997 and 1998, smoke from fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) blanketed most of insular Southeast Asia, periodically disrupting transportation, hindering economic activity, and creating serious health risks.

Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago and one of its most biologically diverse regions (Myers and others 2000). With a total population of close to 219 million in 2004, it is the fourth most populous country on earth after China, India, and the United States (Population Reference Bureau 2004). Located in the humid tropics of island Southeast Asia, Indonesia boasts a greater area of tropical forest than does any other country except Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Since about 1950, however, the forest-covered area has declined from around 160 million hectares, or about 84 percent of the total land area, to probably no more than 90-95 million hectares, or roughly 50 percent of the land area. Estimates suggest that the average annual rate of deforestation from 1985 to 1997 was on the order of 1.7 million hectares, one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world (FWI/GFW 2002, 7-13).

The frequency and severity of forest and land fires has increased sharply since the early 1980s, especially on Sumatra and Kalimantan, primarily because human activities have taken a heavy toll on the islands' forests. During the 1985-1997 period alone, those islands together lost some 17 million hectares of mainly lowland forest, or about three-quarters of the approximately 22 million hectares of forest that were lost nationwide during that period (FWI/GFW 2002, 13). If current trends continue, Sumatra's remaining lowland forests in dryland areas will probably disappear soon after 2005 and those of Kalimantan by 2010 (World Bank 2001, 8). The major proximate causes of deforestation include road building, the opening of forest for transmigration schemes, increasing population densities, and the expansion of oil-palm and rubber cultivation. Most of the remaining forest cover has been degraded by unsustainable logging, much of it conducted illegally, and large tracts of primary and secondary forest have been replaced by industrial timber plantations. The forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan have been extensively fragmented and degraded, rendering them increasingly vulnerable to the ravages of fire.

This article focuses on the large land and forest fires that have periodically broken out on Sumatra and Kalimantan since the early 1980s. It outlines the most devastating environmental and socioeconomic consequences of the major fire-and-smoke episodes, looks at how Indonesia, her neighbors, and various organizations responded to the 1997-1998 conflagrations, and places the fires in the context of forest policy and fire management. …

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