Published: November 2008

Indonesia's Fires

Borneo Farmer Fire

Indonesia's Plague of Fire

(Originally published in the August 1998 issue of National Geographic)

Unchecked fires smolder throughout the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo, spawning respiratory illness, traffic accidents, and food shortages across Southeast Asia.

By Lewis M. Simons
Photograph by Michael Yamashita

Abdur Rani hunkered on the ground behind his home, little more than a box he'd nailed together from raw timber, and gazed across the still smoldering terrain at the acreage he'd just burned bare. For miles around this scorched field in southern Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, the rolling land was baked black and crisp, dusted with feathery white ash. Tendrils of smoke curled from the peat ground cover and floated into the chrome yellow sky. Here and there charred and shattered tree trunks punctured the horizon, remnants of what had once been a dense tropical rain forest. The stillness of the sweltering afternoon was broken only by the rumbling and gear-growling of trucks hauling hardwood logs to the nearby Java Sea coast over roads that slashed the wilderness like red scars. In this landscape I could see only death and destruction. Abdur Rani saw opportunity, a new cycle, life itself.

To Abdur, a Dayak tribesman and a slash-and-burn farmer, fire is a regular marker on life's clock. He counted his age, 41, by the annual rice-preparation fires he, and his parents before him, had set since his birth. Unlike subsistence farmers elsewhere who ready the soil by plowing and keep it productive by fertilizing, Abdur and millions like him burn off a few acres, plant, and then, in a few years, move to a nearby patch, repeating the process over and over again.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |