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Behind Indonesia's El Niño Fires
by Henry Lachowski, Paul Maus, Gary Man, Chuck Dull, Grahame Applegate, and Suyanto

 
An Aerial photograph of West Kalimantan shows a mosaic of burn scars in this region of mixed forest and agriculture
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El Niño, once an obscure curiosity, is now feared by millions for the changes it brings to weather and climate worldwide. Indonesia is no exception. El Niño is blamed for 2 dry years-1997 and 1998- when millions of acres of forest and agricultural land burned on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Together, the islands comprise much of Indonesia, a nation with the world's third largest area of tropical rainforest, much of it threatened by deforestation. What caused the El Niño fires to spread out of control?

To find the answer, the U.S. Agency for International Development assembled
a team of scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research, the
International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, and the USDA Forest Service's Remote Sensing Applications Center.

The team collected information from sources ranging from Earth-observing satellites to interviews with local villagers. The team prepared detailed maps of eight study areas with common factors that contributed to the fires. The most important contributing factors are weather patterns, previous deforestation, increased human access to forest areas, and, above all, an unsettled land tenure system. In areas where social structures and property ownership are stable, forests were actively protected from large, destructive fires. In areas of unstable land tenure, fires typically burned out of control.

Two for one: by tracking the locations of hotspots with weather satellite images, researchers hope to determine the causes and impacts of fire.

The study concluded that the Government of Indonesia, with support from the international community, must continue to work on policies to mitigate the underlying problems. Key changes might include establishing fair, impartial, and transparent legal proceedings to resolve property disputes; eliminating perverse incentives for forest conversion to other uses, such as oil palm plantations; developing a better fire protection and management infrastructure; and strengthening the protection of national parklands.

With the return of wetter weather, severe fires have not recurred. But so long as the underlying causes of the El Niño fires persist, it's only a matter of time.

Building Indonesia's Firefighting Capabilities

Wildfires are a long-term threat to the people of Indonesia and to the country's rich natural resources. The USDA Forest Service is helping to meet the threat through fire suppression exercises and mobilization planning workshops for Indonesian counterparts. The goal is to give Indonesians the organizational tools they need to rapidly suppress wildfires. Partners in the project include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the German aid agency GTZ, the Indonesian Ministries of Forestry and Environment, and the Provincial Government of East Kalimantan. Funding is from the USDA Forest Service and the East Asia-Pacific Environment Initiative of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Henry Lachowski, Paul Maus, Gary Man, and Chuck Dull work for the USDA Forest Service, Washington, DC; Grahame Applegate is with the Center for International Forestry Research, Bogor, Indonesia; and Suyanto is with the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, Bogor, Indonesia.


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