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New peat fires in Indonesia demand action


Now the dry season has started in South East Asia, wildfires are beginning to occur in several places in Sumatra and Kalimantan. They are already so large that parts of peninsular Malaysia are becoming covered with smoke. The fires are mostly caused by farmers who burn fields and newly cleared forest areas. Unfortunately these set light to the underlying peat soil which has been dried out as a result of extensive drainage of these naturally wet peat areas.

In recent years, huge areas of peat-swamp forest have been drained by digging canals. These have enabled clearance of land for logging and agriculture by providing drier conditions and access to the forest. Once the forest has been cleared; the drainage continues and the deep peat soil underneath dries out. Drainage is also carried out in order to convert the area into oil palm plantations. This is an extremely unsustainable activity in peatland areas. Oil palm needs a depth of at least 70 cm of dry soil and this drained layer of organic peat quickly decomposes (through oxidation) and disappears, even without fires.

Nyoman Suryadiputra, Technical Director of Wetlands International Indonesia: “The draining of wetlands in Kalimantan and Sumatra converts huge peatland areas into burning pyres.  A small fire can now easily develop into an inferno that lasts for months, destroying the area, emitting several gigatonnes of carbon and leading to terrible air pollution in parts of South East Asia”.

1997 saw the biggest fires which were worsened by extremely dry conditions due to the el Nino effect. Emissions from the fires were comparable to 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Huge areas of South East Asia were covered in smoke; even airports in Malaysia had to close. Thousands of people suffered form respiratory diseases, especially children and there is evidence of long-term health problems in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government should act directly by providing enough capacity to the services that detect and stop the current fires. Effective action has been insufficient in recent years. 

n the longer term, governments and development partners in the region must work on preventing these fires. Wetlands International conducts several projects in Kalimantan and Sumatra addressing this. The organization works with local people to improve management of peat-swamp forest areas, preventing and stopping fires and conducts activities on closing drainage canals to restore wet conditions that reduce fire risk. These projects demand long-term follow up.

Berbak-Sembilang, Sumatra, Indonesia.
This wetland area consists of two adjacent national parks with mangrove, freshwater swamp and peat-swamp forests bordering the Sumatran coast. The peat-swamp areas are heavily degraded. The project provides rewards to local people when they take action to achieve sustainable peatland management because this supports the whole region and the global environment.

Central Kalimantan Peatland Project
Under this project, we are restoring the water table in logged and drained peat-swamp forests in areas in Central Kalimantan by closing drainage canals. This prevents oxidation of the peat and wildfires in the dry season that would lead to the irreversible destruction of the area.

News form the region: en

Chris Baker
Wetlands International Headquarters

Nyoman Suryadiputra,
Wetlands International Indonesia

More information:
Alex Kaat (communication manager)
+31 6 50601917


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