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WHITEHOUSE, Alfred E., Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, US Embassy Jakarta, Unit 8129, fpo, 96520, awhiteho@indo.net.id and MULYANA, Asep A.S., Agency for Education and Training, Department of Energy and Mineral Rscs, Jalan Gatot Subroto, Kav 49, Jakarta, 12950

Indonesia’s fire and haze problem is becoming an annual occurrence. By mid-June 2004, over 300 hot spots had been detected in Sumatra and haze covered the Indonesian Province of Riau and parts of the Malaysian peninsula. Airports closed and flights were delayed beginning the cycle of economic impacts and complaints from Indonesia’s citizens and neighbors.

Beginning in the 1970’s, increasing demand from Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry, plywood industry and round log export markets put tremendous pressure on Indonesia’s forests. Rainforests in their natural state rarely burn because they are difficult to ignite due to the forest’s high humidity even in drought years. However, logging these closed canopied humid forests allows them to dry out making them susceptible to fire.

In 1982-83, 1987, 1991, 1994 and 1997-98, forest fires ravaged Sumatran and East Kalimantan forests. These severe fire episodes resulted from prolonged drought periods accompanying the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Satellite data and ground observations showed that more than five million hectares burned in East Kalimantan during the 1997/98 extended dry season. Not only were the economic losses and ecological damage from these surface fires enormous, they ignited exposed coal seams along their outcrops.

The Sumatran and East Kalimantan forest fire areas overlay 95% of Indonesia’s estimated 38 billion tons of coal. In East Kalimantan, coal fires are still burning from each of the forest fire periods consuming valuable coal resources and destroying the land surface. Unlike forest and peat fires, coal fires persist for decades smoldering underground unaffected by even torrential monsoon rains.

Estimates of active coal fires in East Kalimantan alone are between 760 and 3000.
Locally, coal fires pose serious health and safety risks from toxic fumes and land surface collapses that destroy infrastructure. On a global basis, they contribute large quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere without providing any of the human benefits from energy consumption. In addition to these direct effects, coal fires remain a long-term source of ignition for new forest fires perpetuating a destructive cycle.

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