For decades, forest and land fires in Indonesia have been an annual environmental crisis, but the dry conditions caused by the 2015 El Niño made that year’s fire season the worst in twenty years: approximately 2.6 millions hectares of land were burned between June and October—Indonesia’s dry season. The fires, many burning on carbon-rich peatlands, exposed millions of people across Southeast Asia to toxic haze and tripled Indonesia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
This year we have not seen nearly as many fires because of wetter conditions, but the root of the problem still needs to be addressed. Nearly all fires in Indonesia are human-caused. The country’s forests and peatlands—carbon-rich, water-logged landscapes that have become another popular option for agricultural expansion—are too moist for fires to ignite naturally. Therefore, they are typically actively drained and set aflame to prepare for agriculture or drive people away in land conflicts. An analysis of new fire history data on Global Forest Watch Fires (available for download here) confirms that fires tend to be concentrated on agricultural concessions and peatlands in Indonesia.
Seeing where fires occurred in the past can help inform fire prevention efforts, like companies’ no-burn commitments, government land use and restoration strategies, or village-level fire prevention programs to the areas of greatest need. This data show the yearly concentration of fire alerts detected by NASA’s MODIS satellites between 2001 and 2015. High concentrations of fire alerts are represented as red spots, while low concentrations are shown in blue.
Over the last 15 years, the majority of fires in Indonesia happened in South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and Riau. Together, these three provinces account for 44 percent of all fires in Indonesia since 2001. In the 2015, the fire alert count in Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra surpassed 27,000, compared to the 5,500 alerts each province had on average in the previous five years. In Riau, fires are decreasing overall, but 4,058 fires were detected in 2016, despite it being a wet year. That’s more than four times as many fires than were detected in the fire-prone Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra.
Agriculture has been the single biggest driver of these fires. More than 60 percent of the 2015 fires in Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra occurred on peatlands. In South Sumatra, 50 percent of its fires in 2015 were also on pulpwood and wood fiber concessions. 2016 fire alerts data shows that this pattern persisted in Riau, where 47 percent of the fires that year were within wood fiber concessions. Looking back further, Central Kalimantan has had more fires alerts on oil palm concessions than any other type of land in every year since 2001. The data also show that historical fire patterns may be changing. The Papua province, for example, has seen an uptick in fires in recent years. In 2015, fires alerts spiked to 14,500, compared to an average of roughly 3,200 fire alerts each year between 2001-2015. With more than 35 percent of fires detected since 2001 occurring inside protected areas and illegal burning on the rise, its relatively untouched forests are becoming increasingly threatened.
These fire history data offer clues as to where and what kinds of fire prevention efforts may be most effective in helping Indonesia avoid disastrous fire seasons in the future, including:
Looking into the past can help Indonesia avoid repeating its history of devastating annual fire seasons. Together with increasingly accurate, near real-time data coming online, the fire history data may help break the cycle.