Fires Raging Across Indonesia

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Fires Raging Across Indonesia


By: Anonymous

Date: September 22, 1997

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken from the NOAA-14 satellite, a meteorological satellite launched for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Dec. 12, 1994.


This picture, taken by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association weather satellite NOAA-14 on September 22, 1997, combines infrared and visible-light images of the island of Borneo to show smoke from the large forest fires burning in the Indonesian part of the island at the time. (A computer has been used to draw in coastlines: the well-defined diagonal linenear the center of the image is the northwest coast of Borneo, the large gray area is smoke spreading in a northwesterly direction, the white areas are high clouds, and the darker areas are unclouded ocean.) Borneo is divided between the nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The fires shown here are burning in the southeastern part of the island, the Indonesian province of Kalimantan.

In 1997 and 1998, some of the largest forest fires in history burned in Southeast Asia, most dramatically on Borneo, but also on other islands in the region. Over 12 million acres burned, with manifold consequences. Some were immediate and some long-term. Smoky haze spread over thousands of square miles of sea and land. Airports hundreds of miles away from the fires were closed because of low visibility. The Air Pollution Index exceeded 800 in the Malaysia city of Kuching (breathing air this polluted for one day is the equivalent of smoking fifty to eighty cigarettes). Record levels of air pollution were also recorded in Singapore, parts of Malaysia, and elsewhere. Schools were closed, hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized with respiratory problems, habitat was greatly reduced for a number of endangered species (including orangutans), and regional economic losses were estimated at over $9.3 billion. A 5 percent increase in global greenhouse-gas emissions for 1997 was predicted from damage caused by the first three months of fires alone, and it was estimated that in six months the fires would release more CO2 than is released in a year by all of western Europe's cars and fossil-fuel power stations. Large peat bogs were ignited that were capable of burning underground for years, inextinguishable even by monsoon rains. The world's largest conservation organization, the World Wildlife Federation, termed the fires a "planetary disaster."

Large fires also burned in Brazil and elsewhere in the tropics in 1997 and 1998; overall, more square miles of tropical forest burned in 1997 than in any other year on record, even 1982–1983, when 9.1 million acres of forest burned on Borneo. Large fires burned again in Indonesia in 2005, especially on Borneo and Sumatra, causing another air pollution crisis.



See primary source image.


The Southeast Asian fires of 1997 and 1998 contributed to the rapid disappearance of tropical rainforests around the world, which has many causes. About seventy-five million acres of rainforest are lost each year to logging (both legal and illegal), slash-and-burn or "shifting" agriculture, conversion of forest to permanent agriculture such as palm oil plantations and soybean farms, urban development, road building, forest fires, and other threats.

Most tropical forest fires, including those depicted in this photo, are not truly natural disasters, although the 1997–1998 fires were enhanced and prolonged by drought. Such massive fires are traceable to population pressure, farming practices, ill-judged government policy, and industrial greed.

The biggest single cause of such fires is destructive logging. In their natural state, tropical forests are moist and do not usually burn easily, even in dry years, but careless logging practices change the character of the forest so that it is more vulnerable to fire. Removal of many trees lets in more light, scatters dead branches and other forestry debris on the ground, and encourages the growth of weedy pioneer species. Tropical forests are also cleared to make way for large oil palm plantations, whose product is processed to yield an oil high in vitamin K and saturated fat. Palm oil is widely used for cooking in Africa and Asia and is found in approximately 10 percent of all groceries sold in the supermarkets of industrialized countries, including lipsticks, detergents, some breads, chocolate, and many other products. Large plantations of oil-palm trees are far more vulnerable to fire than are the tropical forests that are cleared to create them. Much of the cleared land is covered with peat, which dries out when the covering forest is removed: the ground itself becomes fuel. Satellite photos showed that about 80 percent of the 1997–1998 fires in Indonesia burned in oil-palm plantations and timber concessions. Fires are also used as a weapon in land ownership disputes between large landowners and local people.

Smaller-scale land users have also started many fires in Kalimantan, where the Indonesian government has been encouraging tens of thousands of people from other islands to relocate for several decades. The new settlers often clear land with fire because it is easier than cutting, though the resulting farms are not sustainable and must be abandoned after a few years for freshly cleared land. This is "slash-and-burn" agriculture. One agricultural project, sponsored by the Indonesian government, involved the drainage of 2.5 million acres of peat bog in 1996–1997, which were then burnt to clear the peat. The stated purpose was to grow rice, but cleared peat bogs are not well-suited to rice-growing and the project (like similar projects in the past) has been largely a failure.

Massive forest fires are one result of the effort to rapidly exploit the lush but fragile forests of the tropics for profit or food without regard to the inherent limitations of these ecosystems.



Dell, Andrei. "Jakarta Apologizes for Raging Fires. Angry Southeast Asia Is Trapped Under an Umbrella of Pollution.〉 International Herald Tribune (September 17, 1997).

Mydans, Seth. "Southeast Asia Chokes on Indonesia's Forest Fires." New York Times (September 25, 1997): pg 1.

Web sites "The Asian Forest Fires of 1997–1998." 〈〉 (accessed February 9, 2006).

National Geographic News December 3, 2001. "Study Links Logging with Severity of Forest Fires." 〈〉 (accessed February 9, 2006).