Right now I’m still at at my first research site, Sikundur, in North Sumatra, looking out over Gunung Leuser National Park. Normally at this time of year the view would be fairly clear, and I’d hear gibbons and siamangs calling, instead I’m staring at a silent cloud of thick smoke from massive forest fires further South in Riau and Jambi provinces. Actually, I’m fortunate in a way; Leuser isn’t burning to the same extent, and though the smoke is an annoyance, we can still follow orangutans. By now though, I should have moved to work with the University of Palangka Raya Centre for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands (CIMTROP) and Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) at my second research site, Sabangau, in Borneo, but research has stopped for fire-fighting, and the scale of the destruction and emergency of the situation in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), mean that I won’t be getting there any time soon.

A Bornean orangutan climbs through the Haze in Sabangau Forest. Photo by Bernat Ripoll Capilla / OuTrop

Over the last two months, nearly 100,000 fires have been raging across Indonesia, the thick blankets of toxic smoke suffocating the region are being inhaled by an estimated 40 million people, and have caused acute respiratory infections in almost half a million people to date. The haze is forcing schools offices, and airports to close. Its spread is creating diplomatic tension between Indonesia and its neighbours Singapore and Malaysia. It is predicted that the cost of this crisis will total as much as $50 billion, about 5% of Indonesia’s GNP, wiping out the country’s economic growth for the year. And, it’s not just a regional problem. Since September burning jungle has been releasing more carbon on a daily basis than the entire US economy, giving total emissions of about a billion tons of CO2 or 3% of the World’s yearly global fossil fuel emissions. It’s one of the biggest environmental disasters of my lifetime, and Erik Meijaard (a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative), goes so far as to call it “The Biggest Environmental Crime of the 21st Century”.

A drone's-eye view of burning at the Sabangau Forest edge. Credit: OuTrop

Each year, at the end of the dry season, fires are deliberately set for a number of reasons: to clear land for agriculture, for hunting, to settle land disputes, and, in some cases, just for fun. While large-scale oil palm and timber plantations are typically presented as being responsible for the burning, studies in Kalimantan and Sumatra show the majority of fires are set outside concession boundaries, and these are the ones that spread out of control. Usually, the monsoon rains would have started by now, putting out the flames naturally, however, with a major El Niño event occurring this year, Indonesia is currently in a prolonged drought, the fires are yet to be subdued, and will likely continue into the coming months.

Santi, a member of OuTrop’s research staff, surveys fire damage in the Sabanagau forest. Photo by Bernat Ripoll Capilla / OuTrop

The most frustrating thing is this all could have been avoided. During the last major El Niño event in 1997, the exact same thing happened, an estimated 25 million acres of land burned, 20 million Indonesians suffered from respiratory problems, and there were 19,800-48,100 premature mortalities. Doubtless the numbers will be similar this year, and scientists have for a long time predicted this year’s events, including the El Niño. Given this timeline, policy development and actual law enforcement, along with better land usage and spatial planning, could have mitigated a lot of the damage. Instead, while large swathes of the country have been in states of emergency for over a month (though as of yet it’s not national), the official response has been lacklustre; there’s yet to be a national ban on starting fires, the government initially turned down offers of International help, choosing to send out the country’s small fleet of helicopters and water-bombers, along with a few soldiers to dig canals (not a good idea). The president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has since reversed this position, sending out thousands of troops, and accepting fire-fighting planes from Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia. However, rather than anyone taking responsibility, the forests have continued to burn.

Facebook post criticizing the Indonesian army's land management practices

As noted in Brittany Patterson / ClimateWire’s Scientific American article last week, some of the worst fires are happening in areas of peatland, like the swamps of Sabangau, where I got my start studying orangutans. You’d think a swamp couldn’t burn, but, as OuTrop’s Managing Director, Mark Harrison, explains, “In their undisturbed, flooded state, peatland forests are naturally fire-resistant. But decades of poor management practices, including extensive forest clearance and canal construction, has drained the peat, putting the whole region at high fire risk when the inevitable droughts occur.” 

Bornean lowland forests contain huge amounts of already endangered and endemic biodiversity, including clouded leopards, hornbills, gibbons, and, of course, my own species of focus, orangutans. The fires are currently decimating orangutan strongholds across Borneo. My site, Sabangau contains the world’s largest contiguous population of nearly 7,000 wild orangutans, and is under serious threat of total destruction. Already over 500 hectares of jungle has been devoured, and in the last week alone, using NASA satellite imaging, 358 fire hotspots were detected inside the forest’s boundaries. Trees are crashing down as their roots are burnt away from beneath them, and thick plumes of smoke spiral into the atmosphere. The fires have already reached the research area, and recently the Patrol Team house we use as a staging point burned down just 1km from camp.

Facebook post: the entrance to the orangutan research station is burning. Credit: Sadih/Outrop
Fire map for Sabangau from Global Forest Watch, edited by Simon Husson / OuTrop

Showing exceptional bravery in the face of such overwhelming adversity, a small, locally led fire-fighting team, including research staff from the field site, is desperately battling to hold back the flames. With no standing water because of the drought, they painstakingly drill bores 20 metres down to pump out groundwater. Because peat fires reach such high temperatures, and burn beneath the surface, huge amounts of water, up to 200 litres for just 1m2 of Peatland, are needed to extinguish the flames. The conditions on the ground are utterly horrific; the air quality index (PM10) is regularly over 2500 (healthy is 0-50; above 300 is hazardous), and there aren’t enough masks to go around. They need help with equipment, and to get more people on the ground fighting the fires (Donations to support OuTrop’s fire-fighting campaign can be received online via MyDonate).

The CIMTROP fire fighting team works through the night digging a bore to reach the groundwater deep beneath the surface. Phot by Bernat Ripoll Capilla / OuTrop

To us here in Indonesia at least, there also seems to be a lack of international attention. OuTrop’s founder and director of conservation, Simon Husson, summarizes the situation: “People are choking in the smoke, and one of the world’s last, great rainforests is burning down. The only way to tackle this is with huge manpower on the ground, supported by intensive and sustained aerial water bombing. Mobilising these resources requires raising international awareness of the catastrophe unfolding in Sabangau. Eventually the rains will come, and only then we will see how bad the damage really is. But simply waiting for the rains is not a solution. We need the eyes of the World on Indonesia, we need more support and we need it now.”

A local firefighter extinguishes the burning peatland. Peat burns both above and beneath the ground requiring a huge amount of water to put out even small areas. Credit: Suzanne Thurrock/OuTrop

My field season in Borneo is probably gone, but that doesn’t matter in comparison to the on-going environmental and humanitarian disaster that is occurring. Long-term, the conservation, economic, and health impacts will be huge. The Indonesian government has a responsibility to implement widespread changes. According to Meijaard these should include “a complete and enforced fire ban; a major scale-up of firefighting efforts, using all available means, national and international; and a prohibition on further peat development and funding for peat restoration.” My only hope is that some change for good can occur as result of this destruction, that these events, and increased international pressure (especially given the vast carbon emissions), act as a catalyst for improved environmental laws and their enforcement in Indonesia. My thoughts are with everyone in Kalimantan and South Sumatra. I hope it rains soon.


Donations to support OuTrop’s fire-fighting campaign can be received online via MyDonate