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Wildfires spread to planned site of new Indonesian capital

A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The endangered species, the ape is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into their forest homes. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Fires raging across Indonesia have flared up in an area of Borneo where the government recently announced would be the site of the nation’s new capital.
  • The location had been chosen in part because it was believed to be at low risk from fires and other disasters.
  • Haze from the fires has affected local communities as well as a nearby orangutan rescue and rehabilitation center.
  • Authorities have arrested two farmers for setting fires on their land, but activists say they were doing so in a controlled manner and with the permission of local officials.

SAMARINDA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s wildfire emergency has spread to the part of eastern Borneo where President Joko Widodo wants to relocate the nation’s capital.

On Aug. 26, President Widodo announced plans to move the capital to an area straddling the border between North Penajam Pasar and Kutai Kartanegara districts in East Kalimantan province. The decision was based in part on the area’s low risk of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and forest fires, as opposed to the current capital, Jakarta, which is sinking.

This month, though, Indonesia faces its worst fire and haze crisis since the catastrophic fires of 2015, which razed 26,100 square kilometers (10,100 square miles) of land across the country — an area nearly the size of Hawaii. And the site of the new capital has not been free of the fires.

Shahar Al Haqq, the head of damage control and security at the provincial forestry office, said fires had been burning in the area for the past few weeks. The fires, he said, were relatively small, compared with those in Jambi province on the island of Sumatra, where photos of skies turned an eerie blood-red color have gone viral as fires burn there.

Fires in East Kalimantan are typically smaller than elsewhere on Borneo, he said. If the province experiences haze, he added, it’s usually from fires in West and Central Kalimantan provinces elsewhere on the island.

“Even though the fires aren’t big, the firefighters are still facing difficulties because of the steep location [where the burning is happening],” Shahar said. “In almost all fire locations there are no groundwater sources.”

Based on data from SiPongi, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s wildfire monitoring system, the area of land burned in East Kalimantan in 2019 is 67 square kilometers (26 square miles). That figure stands at 448 square kilometers (173 square miles) for Central Kalimantan and 259 square kilometers (100 square miles) for West Kalimantan.

A map showing East Kalimantan province (light red) and two districts: North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara (deep red). Image courtesy of President Joko Widodo’s Twitter account.

Fires in North Penajam Paser are concentrated in the Nenang, Mount Seteleng and Lawe-lawe areas, according to the district disaster mitigation office. In Kutai Kartanegara, they’re mainly in the Samboja and Bukit Soeharto areas.

“All of our forces are focused on extinguishing these fires,” said Nur Kholis, the head of Samboja subdistrict. He is working with the military, the police and a special subdistrict-level task force on firefighting, as well as local volunteers.

The area is home to Samboja Lestari, an orangutan rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction center run by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is a critically endangered species. The center is also home to dozens of sun bears (Helarctos malayanus).

“Since March 2019, we at BOSF have sounded the alert of forest and land fires,” said Jamartin Sihite, CEO of the BOSF. “At the moment, thin smoke which is thought to be the result of wildfires has hit Samboja Lestari in the last few days.”

The center’s medical team has provided the 130 orangutans under its care with milk and multivitamins to protect their health as the haze spreads. They are also reducing the animals’ outdoor activities and spraying the cages with mist to keep them cool. “Without exception, every one of them is receiving intensive care,” Jamartin said.

Fires in Samboja, East Kalimantan. Image by Yovanda for Mongabay.

On Sept. 20, two residents of Paser district, not far from the planned site of the new capital, were arrested for allegedly setting forest fires.

The arrest was criticized by AMAN, Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous peoples’ rights, because the individuals were setting controlled fires to clear small fields in accordance with local custom. The two people had already obtained permission to set the fires from local authorities, said Margareta Setting Beraan, the head of AMAN’s branch in East Kalimantan.

“During the dry season, Paser residents farm their land in accordance with local wisdom,” she said. “We condemn this arrest.”

She added, “Don’t look for scapegoats [for the fire and haze crisis] by accusing indigenous people who are farming.”

Banner: A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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