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Forest fires are burning out of control in forest, plantations and scrub-land chiefly in Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo); it is now estimated that up to 1 million ha is burning. The fires have originated from timber and plantation companies burning land (often illegally) Conditions in the region are unusually dry because of a severe El Nino event (see below), hastening the spread of the fire. In addition, much of the natural forest is very prone to fire because of the effects of heavy logging.
The smoke from the fires is combining with pollutants from cities in Indonesia and Malaysia to create a suffocating smog that is obliterating the sun and causing serious breathing and respiratory problems. The smog has spread to Singapore, The Phillippines and even southern Thailand, and it is thought it will last until next April. Up to 70 million people are being affected.

Friends of the Earth International - a call for action

Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WAHLI) and Friends of the Earth International is calling on the Indonesian Government to:
  • take decisive and adequate action to put out the fires and provide relief to the people affected by the disaster. The Emergency Relief Fund of US$800-000 announced by the Government on 27 September is woefully inadequate.
  • prosecute the forest and plantation companies that have ignored or broken government policies on burning.
  • implement their own laws and policies, and pass whatever new ones are necessary, to bring the timber and plantation industry under control and make them sustainable.
Friends of the Earth is also calling on the international community and citizens' organizations to hold the Indonesian government accountable for the widespread tragedy caused by the forest fires. The government has for too long flouted the calls of its people for an end to the corruption, incompetence, indifference and pure profit-seeking that has characterized the country's forest management policy.
In the absence of an effective government response, WALHI/ FOE Indonesia has established Emergency Posts in six affected communities. FOE International has issued an urgent appeal for smoke masks and donations to enable WALHI/ FOE Indonesia to continue meeting this immediate and practical need.

Indonesian Government response - too little, too late

The fires have been burning since July. However, the Indonesian government has not responded quickly enough, taking little action to put out the fires in the past months, and only announcing an emergency relief fund on 27 September. The relief fund is also far too little, the fund of Rp. 3.1 billion (less than US$800,000) being shamefully inadequate, given the magnitude of the tragedy. The government spends more than a hundred times this sum to keep powerful pulp, paper and peat barons in business (ref). For example: the Indonesian government subsidizes the aircraft industry to the tune of Rp. 400 billion (US$102 million) and PT Pulp & Paper, a plantation consortium, with up to Rp. 250 billion (US$64 million) [1].
The government has also failed for decades to control its forestry and plantation sector, and not heeded the warnings of previous fires and the calls of environmentalists (see below).

A region choking to death

The smoke from the forest has combined with pollution from cities to produce a deadly smog, referred to in Asia as “the haze”. The haze has already claimed the lives of 19 people in Indonesia and over 40,000 people have been hospitalised. Up to 70 million people across the region are being affected, and health experts have warned that up to 20 per cent of all deaths in the region could be caused by the smog [2].
The haze is affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. In many of the worst-hit districts, calls have been made for people to stay indoors while special protective masks have sold out or are in short supply in many places.
The most serious health hazard from the smoke comes from the particles suspended in the air. The smoke from burning vegetation also contains a multitude of chemicals, including irritants such as sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and ammonia.
Though information is scant, the Air Pollutant Index (API) is reported to have reached 600 in parts of Indonesia [3] (six times the norm) , and 839 in Kuching, Malaysia [4]. The Air Pollution Index used is similar to the system used in the USA, but the readings of 600 and 839 go off the top of the USA scale.
The Total Suspended Particle (TSP) in Indonesia has been reported as 600 microgram, compared to a maximum detailed in a ministerial decree max of 260 microgram [5]. The UK health standard is 50 .g/m3, and the UK government proposes to set its “alert threshold” - at which there is “Risk of more serious adverse health affects, not necessarily confined to sensitive groups ” at 100 .g/m3 [6] (Note: the UK figures are for 24 hour averages and it is not clear if this what the figures reported from Indonesia represent).
The highest pollution reading in Kuala Lumpur so far is equivalent to a 24-hour particulate level (PM10) of 350 .g/m3 (ie seven times the UK health standard). The Kuching reading of 839 is too high to be converted to the scale used in the UK.
These levels of pollution are clearly extremely dangerous to human health. Even the pollution levels in the UK result in the premature death of an estimated 10,000 people a year, from asthma, bronchitis and other heart and lung problems [7].
Whilst the immediate effects of the pollution are most notably on the respiratory tract, it is not known what the longer term impact (eg. cancers) of prolonged exposure to these very high pollution levels will be. Experts have pointed out that inhaling wood smoke can cause throat cancer and long-term damage to the kidneys, livers and the nervous system [8].

Who's to blame?

Although the Indonesian government has named plantation and timber companies responsible for starting the fires (see below), environmentalists have attacked the Indonesian government for failing to control the illegal burning, and for the failure over the past years to control the destruction of the nation's forests, and the widespread illegal practices by the industrialists.
An Editorial in the Thai newspaper The Nation has planted responsibility squarely with industry and government. It said: “The blame must surely go to the logging and plantation companies which callously burn forests in the name of profits. Blame, too, must go to the Indonesian government for providing these companies with subsidies to clear the forests. And blame must also go to Asean - which despite years of meetings, reports and action plans - is impotent in stopping it from recurring”. [9]

The role of the timber and plantation industry - conclusive evidence available

The government has named 117 plantations, 27 Industrial forests and 19 transmigration sites in Sumatra and Kalimantan that have used burning on their land recently (even though it has been illegal since 1994), and given them 15 days to deny the allegations [10]. If they cannot prove they have not used fire, their licences to operate will be reviewed and possibly revoked. Environment Minister Sarwono has stated that 90% of the burning is due to timber estates, plantation owners and transmigration sites [11].
However, other parts of the government are playing down the role of the industries, calling it a natural disaster due to El Nino, or even blaming small-scale farmers and indigenous communities for starting the fires [12].
Satellite observations from the NOAA satellite, however, confirm that the plantation and timber companies, not small-scale farmers or indigenous communities, are responsible for the fires. For example, the satellite images from April 1997 for Riau Province, Sumatra, show that 90% of the fire areas were in plantations, 8% were in forest concessions (known as HPH/HTI areas), and only 2% were on community lands. In June 1997, 87% of the hotspots observed were on plantation areas, 8% percent were in HPH/HTI areas, and only 4% were on community lands [13].

Indonesia's plantation ambition

The plantation sector is expanding enormously in Indonesia, with palm oil, pulp, rubber plantations etc replacing natural forest on a vast scale throughout the archipelago. The government has a plan to develop 4.4 million ha of pulp plantations for timber by 2004 [14], and has an ambition to be the largest producer of pulp and paper in the world.
The area of palm oil plantations in Indonesia is also huge, with an estimated 1.2 million ha in 1995 [15], and a government plan for 5.5 million ha by 2000 [16]. Indonesia is the second largest exporter of palm oil to the UK: in 1995 Indonesia exported 76,000 tonnes of palm oil products to the UK (ref). It is estimated that this would require 33,400 hectares of oil palm plantations [17]. Palm oil is used for the production of edible and inedible products, including frying and cooking oils, margarines, and dairy products. Inedible products produced from palm oil include diesel, soaps, rubber, candles and cosmetics.
Many multinational companies are involved in the plantation sector. For example, Finnish paper giant UPM-Kymmene (member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and a major supplier of paper to the UK) is involved in a joint venture with APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International), which owns two pulp mills in Sumatra. APRIL, which clear-fells logged-over natural forest to provide its mills with raw material, is one of the companies named by the Indonesia government as using fire illegally to clear land.
International investment is also involved in plantations. APRIL is listed on international stock exchanges. Another pulp mill development in south Sumatra, PT Tel, is being funded partly by investment from the Bank of Scotland.

Logging out of control

Logged forest is more susceptible to fire than unlogged forest, because of the debris left on the ground after logging, and because logging opens up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to enter and dry the forest floor [18].
The logging industry in Indonesia is huge: forestry is the second biggest earner after oil and gas, and 64 million ha of the forest has been carved up for logging concessions [19]. Indonesia is the biggest player in the international tropical timber market, harvesting approximately 26 million cubic metres from its forests annually [20]; it is the world's largest producer of plywood [21].
Indonesia is the UK's second largest supplier of tropical timber (logs, sawn timber, plywood, veneers and boards); in 1996 the UK imported 201,650 cubic metres of tropical timbers from Indonesia [22]. Even the UK Timber Trade Federation representative Michael James admitted, in a interview for BBC Radio 4 on 28 September 1997, that “The Indonesians haven't quite got their forest management under control”. Mr James also acknowledged the role logging plays in encouraging forest fires, saying in the same interview: “I would acknowledge that if you thin the forest it will burn more easily...”
Natural forest cover in Indonesia has decreased from 80% of the land area in the 1960s to 57% today [23]. Indonesia now has over 100 million ha of natural forest, the third largest area of tropical forest in the world, but this is being destroyed at a rate of 1 million ha a year (or 1% a year) [24].
According to IUCN “The lowland rainforest of Sumatra and Kalimantan [the areas that are now worse affected by fire] have been particularly heavily logged, ...very little is pristine.” [25].
Environmentalists, both within Indonesia and abroad, have been highlighting the poorly regulated, destructive logging industry for decades. The forest companies often operate irresponsibly, destroying the forest or leaving it in such a state that it is unlikely to regenerate. Even the policies and laws that are in place are often disregarded. At the end of 1996, the Indonesian Minister of Forests was reported as saying that 20 million ha of Indonesia's forests were in a critical state and warned that the proportion could increase rapidly, although he put most of the blame on shifting cultivators [26]. 60 of 90 forestry concessions ending in 1996 have not be renewed because the forests were in such a bad state and forestry regulations had not been followed. Government Forestry Department expert Dr Tantra has warned that Indonesia's natural forests could be completely logged out by 2030 unless the selective cutting and replanting policy is properly implemented [26].
The logging industry is controlled by few, very rich individuals, and corruption is rife. Indonesian President Suharto is closely connected to the timber industry and has amassed a huge wealth (Suharto's personal wealth is estimated at US$1.6 billion). The most notorious timber tycoon, Mohammed “Bob” Hassan, who controls approximately 3.5 million ha of forest and is head of the loggers and wood-processing trade association, is a close friend and advisor to the President [27].
Although the state set up a special fund from logging dues supposedly to ensure forests were maintained - the Reforestation Fund - collection rate of dues from logging is appalling (estimated by the World Bank to be 30%). Money that is in the Restoration Fund is not even used for forest management - for example, B J Habibie, the Minister for research and technology, will receive a US$180 million loan from the fund to support the construction of an aeroplane. The money is also being used to support a controversial project to turn 1 million ha of swamp forest in Kalimantan into rice-fields [28].

Transmigration and other projects

Transmigration sites have also been named as using fire to clear land. Indonesia has a massive transmigration programme to move people from the overcrowded islands of Java, Bali and Lombok to outer islands. Nearly 3 million people have so far been moved, and over 6.7 million ha of land is allocated for transmigration programmes. Transmigration programmes and planning for it (the Regional Physical Planning Programme for Transmigration - RePPProT) have been funded by loans from the World Bank and bi-lateral aid from the UK [29].
Other misguided schemes such as the giant rice-growing project in Kalimantan (mentioned above) have made the fires worse. 260,000 ha of the area slated for the project is reportedly on fire, with the fire burning in the peat underground. A canal constructed to start draining the area for the rice project is believed to have dried the peat, making it more susceptible to the fire [30].

Beleaguered biodiversity

Although Indonesia occupies only 1.3% of the land surface of the globe, it contains an estimated 10% of all plant species, 12 % of mammals, 16% of reptiles and 17% of birds, making it one of the most biodiverse countries on earth. Sadly, Indonesia has the longest list of vertebrates that are threatened with extinction [31] eg. 104 bird species are included on the official threatened list. [32]. According to IUCN, most of the threatened vertebrates are in danger because they cannot survive rain forest clearance. Examples include the Clouded Leopard, which once occurred throughout Sumatra, but is now restricted to a few isolated areas, because of the clearance of its forest habitat [33]. The Sumatran Rhinoceros is in a similar predicament, and is on the brink of extinction.

Previous fires - lessons not learnt

This is not the first time fire has devastated Indonesia's forests, but the warning signals have been ignored. In 1982-3, approximately 33,000 square km of forest (the size of Belgium) in East Kalimantan burnt. The forests in this region have been extremely heavily logged, and the fire swept quickly through logged forest, where dead, dry remains of trees littered the floor, and also in the peat forests, where the peat soil caught fire [34].

Although the fire was officially blamed on shifting cultivators and peasant farmers using fire, environmentalists then drew attention to the role of the logging industry, the lack of regulation and control and the poor condition of the forests. However, no action to improve forest regulation was taken, and the timber industry has continued its unsustainable and often illegal practices.

Current weather conditions and El Nino?

El Nino is a periodic climate event which occurs in the Pacific ocean , but has global consequences. The event starts when a part of the Pacific Ocean gets warmer, the warm water rises to the surface and heats the air above it, affecting the water and air movements on a large scale. The body of heat then moves from New Guinea towards the coast of South America. These events have a dramatic effect on climate patterns: regions of south-east Asia and Africa are affected by severe drought while the Americas may experience severe storms and floods.
The occurrence of El Nino is unpredictable, but traditionally it occurred about every seven years or so. Recently, however, El Nino has been occurring more frequently, being longer lived and more intense. The most recent El Nino event lasted from 1990 to 1995. The occurrence of another severe El Nino this year, just two years after the 1990-1995 prolonged event, is extremely unusual [35], and some scientists have suggested this could be due to human-induced global climate change [36].

Global impacts

The fires themselves will contribute significantly to global climate change effects through the massive emission of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that the 1 million hectares of burning forests will produce around 220-290 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - roughly 50% of Britain's annual carbon dioxide emissions (550 million tonnes) [37].
The fire is also threatening over 1 million hectares of peat forest [38], and an additional 220 million tonnes of CO2 (another 40% of the UK's emissions) could be released if just the top ten cm of peat were to burn [39]. Peat soils are densely packed with organic matter and contain large quantities of carbon. Once the fire is in the peat below ground, it is even more difficult to extinguish.

1. WAHLI/FOE Indonesia, pers.comm.
2. WAHLI/FOE Indonesia, pers.comm.
3. WAHLI/FOE Indonesia, pers.comm.
4. Air Pollution Index figures from Internet site
5. WAHLI/FOE Indonesia, pers.comm.
6. UK Government consultation paper
7. Estimate of 10,000 people dying
8. The Nation (Bangkok) 29 Sept 1997
9 The Nation (Bangkok) 29 Sept 1997
10. Burning of fields already visible at 117 companies. Kompas, 18 Sept 1997
11 Down to Earth press briefing, Sept 1997
12. The Straits Times, 29 Sept 1997
13. Taking to court businessmen who are still burning forests WAHLI/FOE Indonesia press release, 2 Sept 1997.
14. Carrere, R. and Lohman, L. (1996) Pulping the South, World Rainforest Movement/Zed Books 15. Calculation from yield of oil palm and total production, as given by FAO
16. Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 Oct 1997
17. Calculation of oil palm export to UK - area of plantation
18. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
19. Down to Earth press briefing, Sept 1997
20. Tropical Timbers Dec 1996 and April 1997
21. Down to Earth press briefing, Sept 1997
22. Tropical Timbers Dec 1996 and April 1997
23. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
24. FAO State of the World's Forests 1997
25. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
26. Down to Earth newsletter, No 32, February 1997
27. Down to Earth newsletter, No 32, February 1997.
28. Down to Earth press briefing, Sept 1997
29. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
30. WAHLI/FOE Indonesia - pers comm.
31. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
32. Collar et. al (1995) Birds to Watch II. BirdLife International.
33. IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
34 IUCN The conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia and the Pacific
35. Trenberth, K and Hoar, T. (1996) The 1990-1995 El Nino Southern Oscillation Event: longest on record Geophysical Research Letters, Vol 23, p. 57.
36. Mike Kelly, East Anglia Climate Research Unit in The Guardian, 22 Sept 1997
37. WWF Press release 29 Sept 1997: Indonesian fires fuel climate change. Assumes 6-80 tonnes of carbon per hectare and a conversion factor of carbon to carbon dioxide of 3.667.
38. Harrison, D. 1997. Fire in the East. Observer, 28 Sept 1997.
39. Using figures of 0.55 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year for a lowering of 1 mm a year with a bulk density of 0.1 g/cm3 and a carbon content of 55%. Immirzi, C., Maltby, E., and Clymo, R. (1992). The global status of peatlands and their role in carbon cycling. A report for Friends of the Earth by the Wetlands Ecosystem Research Group, Dept of Geography, University of Exeter.

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