forest fire in indonesia

I. Identification

1. The Issue

By definition, it is raining in a rain forest so that the trees are green all year. That is why a rain forest is very wet. It is easy to find water. High humidity makes a rain forest hard to be burnt. However, this is complete opposite of the forests in Indonesia at the moment. Along with the wetness, the sounds of the forest has disappeared too. Since the 1982-83 wildfire (which was noted as the largest forest fires in this century) in Indonesia, fire has been a recurring event of the islands. The fire has caused massive damage within its borders as well as for its neighboring countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore. Since the 1986 fires, Indonesia has been at odds with Malaysia and Singapore, as the haze from these fires covered the South East Asian region for weeks, causing health problems, disruption of shipping and aviation, and culminating in the closure of international airports. Economic losses and ecological damage continues to be enormous

It is important to note that most of the forest fires in Indonesia are man-made. Much of these fires have been and continue to be set to expand its palm oil, wood pulp and other rubber industry. Fire is the cheapest and the only available tool for smallholders to reduce vegetation cover and to prepare and fertilize the extremely poor soils. The situation has worsened over the years due to El Nino. Except for brief spells of rain in December 1997, since June 1997 until April 1998, East Kalimantan, one of the regions in Indonesia on fire, got no rain at all. Climatologists estimate that the El Nino will continue until June 1998.

2. Description

Wildfire in Indonesia are almost always caused by human. Only in very limited areas of East Kalimantan are burning goal seams (mostly ignited by 1982-83 fires) as ignition sources. A large percentage of all wildfires resulted from escaped agricultural burns which are done to clear the land. Fire is the cheapest and the only available tool for plantation companies to clear their land, to reduce vegetation cover and to prepare and fertilize the extremely poor soil. And fires undoubtedly will continue to be used for land clearing and soil enrichment by individuals and companies in foreseeable future, even now the Government already prohibited fire for land clearing.

Dayak people, an indigenous tribe in Kalimantan, traditionally for thousands of years in tune with their natural environment, have been going shifting cultivation or sometimes called slash and burn agriculture. They have experiences and strict traditional rules of using fire to clear their agriculture land. But huge number of settlers who came from other islands and plantation companies do not apply such kind of rule in using fire for land clearing.

The extensive forest conversion policy is one of the substantial problems of forest fires. The Government of Indonesia has a plan to convert 400.000 hectares of forest a year to be agricultural plantations or timber plantations. The Government have reserved total of 20 million hectares of natural forest to be converted to plantation areas after commercial trees are cut. Sadly, the Kalimantan soil is not suitable for palm oil plantations or timber plantations. Apparently, it is only suitable for sustainable forest use. And forest conversion program cannot be implemented without fires. Furthermore, if the land use policy is not changed soon, the forest fire will be a recurring annual event. Due to the current economic situation in Indonesia, it will be impossible for the Government to change its policy toward the forest. With Indonesia is in need of foreign exchange to pay its foreign debt, it is almost definite that more forests will be converted to cash crop plantation such as palm oil plantation, rubber plantation, and timber plantation.

3. Related Cases

Baikul Pollution and Wood Industry

Chile Forest Preservation Plan

China Coal, Industrialization, and the Environment

Colombia Deforestation

Dutch Tropical Wood Import Limits

EC Carbon Proposal and Trade

Indoesian Log Export Ban

Japan Air Pollution and China Coal

Korea Air Pollution and Development

Surinam Deforestation

Tropical Timber Import Ban

4. Draft Author:

Yumi Cho

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

The fires have caused conflicts with neighboring nations. As mentioned before, the practice of setting fires to clear lands have been illegal since 1994. Most people breathing the air would like for this particular law to be enforced. There has been many studies that have been done in Indonesia regarding the fires. Johann Goldammer, Chief of the Fire Ecology Research Group at Germany’s Freiburg University started the only known study of Southeast Asian fires. He suggests the Indonesia set up a land-management system that protects the forest with proper satellite and radio communications to stop fires early, while educating farmers in good, controlled burning practices. He even goes further to suggest fire quotas for each farmer.

According to the umbrella law of forestry issued in 1967, all forest in Indonesia owned by the Government, the Government has the right to convert, to change the use, and to give its right to a private company. This means that the Government did not recognize the traditional law or traditional right of indigenous people on their forests. Then the New Order Government gave forest concession to some retired generals instead of to the local residents. This gave them the right to log the forest and all the indigenous people was gotten rid of their forests. Indigenous people have been prohibited to go inside the forest. Thus this created conflicts between the indigenous people and the concession companies.

It is widely agreed that there needs to be policies made to address this issue; however, the government has yet to step up.

6. Forum and Scope:

Although the fires are originating in Indonesia, the effects of the fire has been causing damages to the region which Indonesia is located. This will also affect other countries around the world who import palm oil as well.

7. Decision Breadth:

Currently, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and parts of Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines is affected by this fire. The regional tourism as well as health is at risk.

8. Legal Standing:

There has been studies which have been set up to measure the pollutant standard index (PSI). Indonesia has set up a task force to look into the fire problem. Indonesia did pass a law which makes clearing land through man-made fires illegal in 1994.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact: Indonesia

10. Sub-National Factors:

There is a suggestion from some environmental groups to embargo any palm oil which may have come from lands which were cleared due to man-made fires. This has not been imposed on Indonesia. Rather, there has been a small grassroots movement to educate the consumer about this issue, so that the consumers would hesitate to buy palm oils produced by Indonesia.

11. Type of Habitat:


IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Currently, some people are working towards an import ban on any products produced on forest lands cleared illegally through fires.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:

Direct: If the environmental organizations are able to help pass laws on what is an “acceptable” palm oil, as well as other industries tied to the forest land, there will be direct impact on the export side of the Indonesia economy. Indonesa with its economic situation at the moment is relying heavily on its ability to export, and majority of their high cost exports come from the forest lands. Indonesia is in need of foregin exchange to pay back its foreign debts, so it is crucial that Indonesia is able to export its products abroad.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes to Palm Oil.

b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes to Trees (Wood).

c. Not Related to Product: No.

d. Related to Process: Yes to Deforestation.

15. Trade Product Identification:

Palm oil is a raw to intermediate product. Palm oil is used to make cooking oil, margarine, soaps, etc.

16. Economic Data

According to the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the US imported over $400 million in lumber last year (out of $11 billion worth of total wood imports). And this does not include wood products from other countries that contain components from Indonesian forests.

The demand for both palm oil and rubber has been growing. In 1996, the US imported over $900 million worth of rubber and latex from Indonesia, more than twice as much as timber, and nearly twice as much from just four years earlier.

Palm oil has been one of the fastest growing subsectors in Indonesia. In two decades, annual output grew from less than 400,000 tons to more than four million. The palm oil industry is continuing to enjoy its trmendous growth. Imports to the US more than doubled from 1995 to 1996, reaching nearly $78 million in value. The industry will continue its rapid growth–there are plans by the Government to double palm oil concessions by year 2000 to over 13 milion acres.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:

The exports of palm oil could be cut and the price of palm oil could increase. With the current economic situation in Indonesia, if restrictions were to be put on any products from the forest, many would be out of jobs, contributing to the increasing number of poverty in Indonesia. Indonesia relies heavily on its ability to export. In 1994, approximately $41.3 billion worth wasw exported.

Export Commodities Estimated 1994 Data

Manufacturers 56.7%

Fuels 24.8%

Foodstuffs 11.1%

Raw Materials 7.4%

18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:

Please see number 17.

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

Deforestation and Air

21. Describe the Habitat, Plants, and Animals in the Forest

Indonesia’s rain forest is or rahter should be like others arounds the world. It should be filled with loud noises: sound of thousands of insects criketing, birds singing, monkeys calling, deer rustling/running around, leaves falling, wind weeping in through the trees, and etc. However, this is not the rain forest of Indonesia due to El Nino. The rain forest of Indonesia lacks water or humidity of any sort. The once habited by different animals, insects, birds, and trees is now filled with silence. Due to the fire, the habitants, such as orangutans have either fled or died. The other habitants would include the Sun Bear, Sumatran Tiger, Asian Elephant, and Javan Rhinoceros. All these species are in danger due to the fires.

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

There will be high impact in the long-run.

23. Urgency and Lifetime:

High urgency. The potential long term consequences of the fire is land loss, harvest collapse and economic disaster, which will lead to regional and global catastrophe.

24. Substitutes:

Educate the farmers in Indonesia of ways to clear land without the use of fires. Set forth fire quotas if fire must be used. Ban fires from occurring in particular areas.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


26. Trans-Boundary Issues:

Yes. The humes from the fire has been moving onto the neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore in the form of smog. Smog has caused not only air planes from landing, it has created major health problems for those who live in the region. Some have accessed that breathing the air is as though you are smoking over 80 cigarettes per day. South China Morning Post have reported that a rough calculation on long term effects on the death tally is a few hundred a day across the region, especially in Indonesia.

27. Human Rights:

Indirectly, this could be of issue, since much of the fire is caused by those who have no ties to the land. The indigenous people who live around the forest are becoming victims of this forest fire. Due to the Government giving much of the forest land to the retired generals as mentioned earlier, there is no human factor involved. The indigenous people have been living off of the forest land for many years, so these local people have respect and care for the forest, whereas, the new owners of the land only want to make money off the land in any way they can. And in the meanwhile, the indigenous people are not able to see the benefit of the forest. And instead, they acquire health problems, along with survival problems.

28. Relevant Literature

Angelsen, A. “Shifting Cultivation and ‘Deforestation’: A Study from Indonesia.” World Development 23(10): 1713-1729.

Belcher, M. and A. Gennino. 1993. Southeast Asian Rainforests: A Resource Guide and Directory. Rainfores Action Network, San Francisco.

Dauvergne, P. 1994. “The Politics of Deforestation in Indonesia.” Pacific Affairs 66(4):497-518.

Special Fact Sheet: Spcies Affected by the Fire in Indonesia. WWf Press Release.

Forest Fire News Archive.


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