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How to stop haze and forest fires in Indonesia

In recent years, annual forest fires in Indonesian have destroyed millions of hectares of forest and caused billions of dollars in economic damage. After each episode of fires the Indonesian government, facing criticism from neighboring governments, promises it will crack down. Nothing happens and the fires burn again the next year.

According to experts–including Dr. Lisa Curran, a biologist who has spent more than 20 years in Borneo–the cycle appears to be worsening. 2006 saw the highest loss of forest cover ever recorded in Indonesia even though climate conditions in a La Nina year were such that fires should have been below average.

While it may seem easy to dismiss these fires as somebody else’s problem, the impact extends well beyond Indonesia. Choking pollution or “haze” from the fires sometimes spreads as far as Australia, China, and India, while the fires release massive amounts of carbon dioxide. With well over 500 tons of carbon per hectare – one of the highest levels of biomass on the planet — burning of peatlands in Borneo and Sumatra can contribute up to 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in some years, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter, despite having only the world’s 22nd largest economy. Some scientists worry that fires and climate change develop into a positive feedback loop that only worsens conditions, producing ever drier climate, more frequent fires, and higher carbon emissions.

Haze over Malaysia during fires that took place in the summer of 2001.
Image courtesy of the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer
(MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Terra satellite, on July 9, 2001.

So what can be done about these fires? A paper published in this week’s issue of the journal Science argues there are five critical steps to reducing forest fires in southeast Asia as well as the Amazon and Africa.

The authors–David J. Lohman, David Bickford, Navjot S. Sodhi–say the top priority is to focus on reducing “dirty fires” from peat (peatlands) and green vegetation (i.e. tropical forests) since these release the largest amount carbon dioxide and soot. Further, these ecosystems provide other important ecological services including housing high levels of biodiversity.

Lohman, Bickford, and Sodhi say the next priority should be the creation and implementation of a coordinated regional fight-fighting plan. A blueprint for such is the 1998 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was proposed after devastating forest fires consumed over 8 million hectares in Borneo and Sumatra and caused almost $10 billion in damages, but never ratified by Indonesia.

The authors write that the use of financial incentives, the provision of alternatives to burning, and education campaigns could help to dissuade farmers and developers from using fire for land-clearing. They say that organizations like the Peace Corps could help in local fire-fighting and education efforts.

Lohman, Bickford, and Sodhi say solutions are needed soon. 2007, forecast to dry, looks to be a bullish fire year.

“Neither governments nor civil society have been able to mitigate the annual shroud of haze that blankets Southeast Asia… Solutions to the haze problem are needed before the onset of the dry season in June, as 2007 may be another El Niño year… Lessons learned from this catastrophe may help ameliorate similar smoke-haze episodes in Amazonia, Africa, and other parts of Asia,” they conclude.

CITATION: David J. Lohman, David Bickford, Navjot S. Sodhi (2007) The Burning Issue. SCIENCE VOL 316: 376 20 MAY 2007

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Borneo, a look into a disappearing world. Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once covered with dense rainforests. With swampy coastal areas fringed with mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago. In the 1980s and 1990s Borneo underwent a remarkable transition. Its forests were leveled at a rate unparallel in human history. Borneo’s rainforests went to industrialized countries like Japan and the United States in the form of garden furniture, paper pulp and chopsticks. Initially most of the timber was taken from the Malaysian part of the island in the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Later forests in the southern part of Borneo, an area belonging to Indonesia and known as Kalimantan, became the primary source for tropical timber. Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of those of legend and those that remain are highly threatened by the emerging biofuels market, specifically, oil palm.

Forest fires result from government failure in Indonesia. Indonesia is burning again. Smoke from fires set for land-clearing in South Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sumatra are causing pollution levels to climb in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok, resulting in mounting haze-related health problems, traffic accidents, and associated economic costs. The country’s neighbors are again clamoring for action but ultimately the fires will burn until they are extinguished by seasonal rains in coming months.

2006 Indonesian forest fires worst since 1998.NASA has linked el Niño to the worst fires in Indonesia since the 1997-1998 conflagrations that burned nearly 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of land across the country. El Niño is an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that causes drier conditions in much of Indonesia. Historically its arrival has been welcomed as time of bounty when mast fruiting of Dipterocarp trees spawn a boom in wildlife activity and bring prosperity to indigenous seed collectors. However in recent years, large-scale land use change in Indonesia, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, mean that el Niño is increasingly associated with massive forests fires that spread a choking haze and economic concerns across Southeast Asia.

Indonesia wants to be paid for slowing deforestation. Indonesia voiced support for a proposal by a coalition of developing countries seeking compensation for forest conservation, according to a report from Reuters. Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia’s minister of the environment, told Reuters that poor countries should be paid for conserving forests and the services they provide the world.

Carbon finance could mean billions for Indonesia. Indonesia could earn billions of dollars for reducing its deforestation rate through a carbon finance mechanism under consideration this week at U.N. climate negotiations in Nairobi, Kenya.

Is Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter?. Is Indonesia the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases? A new study by Wetlands International says it is, if the country’s destruction of peat bogs is taken into account. A report released Thursday by Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, a Dutch research institute, estimates that emissions from Indonesia’s destruction of its extensive peat bogs releases 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year — about ten percent of world greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. For comparison, the United States, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases, produces about 7.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year. 70 percent of emissions result from the burning of peatlands, while 30 percent result from drainage, according to the report, titled Peatland degradation fuels climate change.

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