To Burn, or Not to Burn

A farmer uses fire to clear his land for planting in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Francesco Fiondella/IRI

A farmer uses fire to clear his land for planting in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Francesco Fiondella/IRI

Imagine smoke and haze so thick it causes ships to crash into each other, shuts down airports and sends millions of people to the hospital with respiratory problems. This was the scene in Southeast Asia in 1997 and 1998, when land-clearing fires set by massive palm oil plantations and small scale farmers burned out of control for months, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Millions of acres, rich with wildlife, turn into a charred and lifeless expanse.

A strong El Niño was partly to blame. The climate phenomenon caused rainfall patterns to shift away from Indonesia, which desiccated the normally spongy peatland areas of the country’s Central Kalimantan province. It didn’t help that many peatlands had already been drained and disturbed from decades of degradation and poor land use planning.

“In the ensuing years after the fires, the Indonesian government responded by banning fire use for clearing land,” says Shiv Someshwar, who oversees the Asia and Pacific Program at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and has led the Peatland Fire effort. “But this caused undue hardship for farmers, many of whom depend on fire to clear secondary growth forests in Central Kalimantan, prior to planting.”

For generations, the indigenous Dayak people of Central Kalimantan have used controlled burning to prepare the land for sowing. Because slash-and-burn is quick, inexpensive and doesn’t require machinery, it has been the only viable way to clear land in this part of the world.

In a report by the World Resources Institute, Someshwar and colleagues detail the IRI’s efforts to get decision makers in Indonesia to ultimately change their fire policy, so that it was based on seasonal climate information. Now, if forecasts call for extremely dry conditions, as happened in 1997, authorities can severely restrict fire use; but in wetter years, the restrictions would ease, and farmers could continue to use fire.

Despite this, use of this early warning approach hasn’t become widespread for a number of reasons. Among them: there’s no compensation system for farmers who lose income during non-burn years.

“A critical challenge remains to create appropriate incentives for farmers to reduce fire use in high- risk years,” the authors write. “To avoid using fire, they would need to receive tangible support.”

Visit the World Resources Institute web site to read the full case study.

In addition to the video above that IRI produced about its peatland fire work, the American Museum of Natural History has a wonderful science bulletin on the topic.