Published: November 2008
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

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.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practiced for centuries throughout the tropics. By itself, it has done relatively little to destabilize the balance of nature in the rain forests, little more than, say, forest fires triggered by lightning in the northwestern United States. Small farmers generally control the scope of their fires carefully. But the Indonesian fire equation has changed dramatically in the past decade with the worldwide boom in tropical products such as palm oil.

The result, as seen in the 1997 round of fires, is one of the world's great environmental disasters. The land burned in Indonesia during that dry season has so far been estimated at 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. (This assessment will almost certainly grow; after the last great Indonesian drought, in 1982-83, it took experts three years to determine that 12,000 square miles had been torched.)

An estimated 20 million people were treated in the 1997 fires for illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and eye, skin, and cardiovascular diseases; a passenger plane crashed in poor visibility over Sumatra, killing 234; ships collided in the Strait of Malacca, killing dozens. Pollution cost regional economies billions in aborted tourist plans, canceled airline flights, lost workdays, medical bills, and ruined crops. Wildlife has suffered too. Every day orangutans fleeing the smoke ambled, disoriented, into a conservation reserve near Pangkalanbuun; they were weakened by infections and respiratory ailments.

Abdur Rani was far too occupied with the business of survival to worry about the effects of fire on wild animals. Bald, bare-chested, and barefoot, he wore only a pair of shorts, so thoroughly patched that I couldn't identify what the original color had been. He was in his element. I looked and felt like an alien. From the eyes down, my face was hidden behind a blue-rubber respirator sprouting twin disks covered in pink fuzz. Inside the mask, my face ran with perspiration, while the rest of me was slathered in a reddish paste of road dust, soot, and sweat. I was a walking amalgam of a chimney sweep and R2-D2.

What passed for air seemed more like oatmeal, thick with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other poisonous substances. I had no idea what the air pollution index, or API (coincidence: api is Indonesian for "fire"), was around Abdur's field outside the town of Pangkalanbuun. But I had already been in places where the official count was reported above 800, which doctors said was the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. By international standards an API of 100-200 is "unhealthy," 201-300 is "very unhealthy," 301-400 is "hazardous," 401-500 is "very hazardous," and anything higher is "dangerous." What we were inhaling, I guessed by the limited visibility and the tart taste on my tongue, must have been around seven or eight packs.

Abdur drew deeply on a yellowish kretek, the Indonesian cigarette blended of tobacco and cloves. The kretek gives off a spicy scent and a sweet taste that I've always associated with the romantic East I discovered as a fledgling foreign correspondent.

But it's rough on the lungs. Unlike me, Abdur didn't seem to be giving any thought to his lungs.

"Fire is good," he explained patiently during the course of a long and convoluted conversation through an interpreter. "Burning the land means we'll have enough food to fill our bellies for the year. Fire is life."

Fire is also free. Clearing land by bulldozer costs about $80 an acre—impossible for subsistence farmers. They operate in the wake of logging teams, mainly poachers, who scythe the forest, felling huge trees and skidding out the trunks on bamboo tracks. Using the scrap timber left behind, the farmers build shacks for their families. Then, swinging heavy-bladed parangs, they slash the remaining brush and saplings, mound them high, and set the heaps afire.

This time, taking advantage of a prolonged drought, Abdur had burned off much more than usual—the equivalent of five football fields. Even as some patches still smoked, he was planting bright green cassava seedlings alongside his house. In a few days, he, his wife, and their three children would jab shallow holes into the warm peat with sharpened sticks and drop in rice seed.

The 1997 drought, Indonesia's most severe in 50 years, was largely the result of El Niño. This periodic warming of Pacific waters reverses global weather patterns, substituting dry seasons for rainy, storms for calm, hot for cold. It had held back the monsoon, which normally begins in September, until November. Abdur had never heard of El Niño, but he knew that the late monsoon gave him better conditions to burn. "More fire means more clear land," he said with a wave of his softly crackling kretek. "And more clear land means more planting and more food."

And more palm oil. Slash and burn has been industrialized. Giant agribusiness firms clear-cut the hardwoods for sale abroad, peel lesser trees into sheets for plywood, burn the scrub, and put in huge plantations of fast-growing, cash-earning oil palms for the world's soaps, salad dressings, and cookies.

Laying the bulk of the blame on those like Abdur Rani who burn to survive—which official propaganda and much of the resultant news coverage did—muddies the reality. Only burning by agribusinesses could spread such a pall of air pollution throughout Southeast Asia and shrink Indonesia's rain forest so quickly. And if the fires burst out of control, either by accident or by design, and they frequently do, then plantations may be expanded that much faster.

For a month Mike Yamashita and I tracked the burning, experiencing its baleful effects. Then, shortly after I returned home, I began feeling as though my head were stuffed with cotton batting. I became dizzy and even fell down the stairs. I couldn't concentrate. One doctor guessed that pollution had affected the inner ear, disturbing my balance. I recalled that a farmer I'd spoken with had complained of similar problems. After two months my symptoms cleared up.

Accompanied by a pair of local guides and a succession of truck drivers and boat and ferry pilots, we traveled some 1,200 miles in Kalimantan through smoke and fire. We also visited the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, one of Southeast Asia's most glittering cities. Even in normal times this low-lying city contends with industrial and automotive pollution. But Kuala Lumpur was in the flight path of the smoke coming across the South China Sea from Indonesia, and its residents were choking beneath a smelly, yellow-gray shroud.

As we drove through the jungle of Indonesian Borneo, rarely were we out of blackened terrain. Often we were ringed by open flames and smoldering peat, which pumped out particularly noxious smoke. Mike, ever mindful of light levels, pointed out that even though we were astride the Equator, the sun never pierced the smog sufficiently to cast a shadow. When the sun was at all visible, it seemed as small and pale as a brassy sequin pasted to a sheet of gray cardboard. Early mornings, midday, and late afternoons were indistinguishable—just gray. Visibility was so limited that we were continually startled by motorcycle and bicycle riders, cars, trucks, and pedestrians suddenly popping out of the gloom. Only a few wore flimsy cloth or paper masks, largely ineffective against the poisonous air.

One evening in the market town of Ketapang, a clerk at the Taruna hardware store was hanging a dozen paper masks on a wooden rack. This was the only shipment received in four months, and he doubted he'd sell many.

"We haven't been told about the haze being harmful," he said. "I don't think it's dangerous."

The next morning I couldn't see more than 20 yards up Jalan Merdeka, the main street. Children in blue-and-white uniforms held rags to their noses as they jounced along behind their parents, who were scootering them to school. The hardware man reported that he'd sold two masks.

We drove for hundreds of miles at a stretch, past rows of spiky green oil palms, some as tall as two-story buildings. At first the plantations seemed attractive, the trees heavy with clusters of the purple egg-size fruit that is the source of the rich oil. But as we traveled on, it became evident that entire forests had been destroyed to make way for these industrial gardens and that thousands more acres were going up in flames daily.

Indonesia ranks behind only Brazil in its endowment of tropical rain forest—10 percent of all that remains in the world. But the pace of burning is far ahead of planting, leaving a carbonized desert. Without ground cover to slow erosion, past rains had scrubbed the unpaved roads into ruts and canyons. Every few spine-crunching miles we had to pile out of our Indonesian-made utility vehicle, a Kijang, and shove timber scraps under the wheels for traction.

From time to time we passed collections of shacks coated in red dust—settlements of migrants from the teeming island of Java to the south. They’re encouraged to move in exchange for five acres of land—part of which the government burns out of the forest for them.

Arriving at one of these settlements one afternoon, we met a dozen men unloading potted oil palm seedlings from a truck. A sign identified the plantation owner as the Good Hope company. The foreman, a genial migrant named Halim (like many Javanese he has only one name), said Good Hope was an Indonesian-Malaysian joint venture. This estate now measured about 50 miles by 50 miles, and crews like his were burning an additional 15 square miles a night to link up the property with another Good Hope holding 25 miles away.

Much like the slash-and-burn farmers, those who work on the oil palm estates ignore the health hazards and environmental damage their work causes. For them it's a powerful economic incentive, a step up from what they knew before. "It's hard work, very hot and dirty," Halim said, "but we have our own house, and a garden for vegetables and even some chickens."

The Indonesian government issued more forest-clearing concessions in 1997 than ever before, mainly to companies owned by wealthy entrepreneurs with connections to then President Suharto. "The people who own these conglomerates have direct access to the president and his family," said Emmy Hafild, director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment. "There are a few honest ministers and senior bureaucrats, but the big businessmen are far more powerful than they are. Corruption is the standard in our country. There is no rule of law."

From the perspective of environmentalists like Hafild, the chief culprit is Mohamad Hasan, one of the largest forest concession holders. He acknowledges having two million acres, but his critics claim that’s a fraction of the land he controls. Known to everyone as Bob, Hasan, an ethnic Chinese who converted to Islam in his youth, became Suharto's weekly golfing partner. Operating as spinmeister for Suharto in the fire crisis, he deflected my request to arrange an interview with the president. But he received me at his home in south Jakarta, a palatial cream-colored structure with a living room the size of a basketball court, ringed by concrete walls guarded by uniformed armed men.

A diminutive, mustached figure in an egg-yolk-yellow batik shirt, characteristically sockless in black slip-ons, Hasan nimbly launched into an impressive-sounding recitation of the laws limiting exploitation of the rain forest: "We have in our country 143 million hectares [353 million acres] of forest, of which 64 million are production forest—meaning we're limited to taking only five to ten trees of 50-centimeter diameter per hectare. Then, 30 million hectares are protected, meaning we can't touch it, and then there's 19 million hectares of national park, which we also cannot touch. This leaves 30 million hectares of conversion land, which may be converted to agricultural purposes. Thirty million hectares out of 143 million is a small fraction." (It represents 21 percent of the area of the country under forest.)

Furthermore, Hasan said, industries based on forest products provide four million jobs. His land ("actually the people's land, which we're permitted to manage for them") is patrolled on the ground and by satellite. "I'd sack anyone who'd burn it." Indeed, he said, "I've suggested that the government take to court people who burn forest land. Because of my friendship with the president, Indonesia has become one of the world's leaders in reforestation."

The government claims that 1.5 million acres of forest were planted in 1996, but critics doubt this and allege that much more could have been done. An Indonesian economist said that in 1996 the 660-million-dollar national reforestation fund "loaned" 178 million dollars to a controversial national jet aircraft development program headed by B. J. Habibie, another Suharto friend. And 108 million dollars of reforestation money went to the giant Kiani Kertas paper and pulp project in Kalimantan—owned by Bob Hasan.

Anyway, said Hasan, Indonesians weren't the ones setting the big plantation fires. It was being done by "outsiders," a euphemism for Malaysians. Investors from neighboring Malaysia are joint-venture partners in newer oil palm plantations. Many are interested only in burning fast and far. But although Indonesia and Malaysia have never been wholly at ease with each other, for the sake of regional harmony their leaders dance an elaborate minuet in which neither points fingers.

Our journey into the Borneo fires had a touch of "Heart of Darkness." As we proceeded south from Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, down West Kalimantan, then east across the bottom of the island to the gem center of Banjarmasin, not just the air but the very quality of life deteriorated. At Pontianak, a gritty frontier-style city, residents waded side by side in the Kapuas River, the longest in Borneo, using its green-brown water as a toilet and for bathing, laundering, cooking, cleaning teeth, and drinking. It was a sign of how far most of the 200 million Indonesians lag behind people in the more prosperous countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, notably Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

As the residents went about their ablutions, a tugboat shoved a raft of cut logs, measuring perhaps 100 by 150 feet, downriver. Headed in the opposite direction, three tugs pushed and pulled a barge of gasoline against the current: out with the rain forest, in with progress.

We left Pontianak for the next substantial town to the south, Ketapang, aboard the M. V. Mitra Express II, a slightly seedy coastal cruiser imaginatively designed to resemble an airliner. As we shoved off, people on the dock were doing group calisthenics, vigorously sucking smog deep into their lungs. Three hours later, about halfway to Ketapang, in the Karimata Strait, visibility dropped to zero. Then the boat stopped. It seems the navigator couldn't spot landmarks. We'd gone off course and run aground on a sandbar. Later, a few rickety fishing boats appeared, and the passengers, men first, clambered aboard the smaller boats for the remaining hour or so of the trip.

In Ketapang, Sarifah Hajijah, who assured me that she was a pious woman and had made the hajj, served us a dinner of spicy venison curry and rice in her three-table food shop. She apologized for the absence of vegetables, because there had been no sun for months.

"This is a curse from God," Sarifah asserted. "He's angry with us." Her daily income had dropped from ten to five dollars. "My grandson, he's two, is sick all the time. He coughs and he’s dizzy. I did hear that we should wear masks, but there are none. Our government doesn’t care about us."

The government sees things differently. While Indonesia remains a poor country, the Suharto regime undeniably, and appreciably, reduced poverty. Government economists say that developing the world's largest palm oil industry will pay off at all levels of society. Until then, the cultural and economic roots of forest burning run so deep that the government is both unwilling and unable to attempt severing them.

When the smoke began drifting across the South China Sea last summer, inflaming the eyes, lungs, and tempers of Indonesia's neighbors, especially Malaysia and Singapore, officials in Jakarta gave a collective shrug. Their cavalier response was partly explained by the prevailing breezes—the capital itself remained clear, and its residents, including the nation's leaders, were untroubled by what local newspapers blandly referred to as "haze." Indeed, even as Indonesians in the smaller cities and towns gagged on the foul air, very few complained openly.

Yuchen, a 27-year-old woman wearing a modest black head scarf, was an exception. "It's the rich people," she said, as we chatted aboard a small ferry. "They want to make a lot of money very quickly. So they burn the forest instead of cutting it."

There's little doubt that Suharto wasn't being kept up-to-the-minute on the fires of 1997. So common was it for his lieutenants to avoid delivering unsettling news that Indonesians created an abbreviation, ABS, for asal bapak senang, meaning "as long as father is happy." Eventually, though, he was compelled to act, and he apologized to neighboring countries. But his expression of regret was little more than Javanese formality. He blamed the haze on an act of God and took no meaningful action. Ironically, Suharto's rare apology sparked a reverse effect: Fearing that the government might stop issuing new land-clearing licenses, plantation operators set even more fires.

The fires coincided with a crisis Suharto had good reason to consider more pressing. The economy was collapsing around him, and world leaders were demanding that he straighten out the currency mess, which eventually led to riots that forced his resignation in May 1998.

In Indonesian culture, particularly the variant refined by Suharto over more than 30 years in power, all actions are ordered by the president or not at all. "The top-down system makes it wise for an official to keep his own counsel," explained a former government attorney. "Initiative can prove harmful to career and personal finance."

So, for example, when we stopped at the government office in Sampit and asked the tan-uniformed officer-in-charge where there were fires in the area, he shook his head. "Oh, there aren't any. Burning has been banned hereabouts for months." After coffee and handshakes, we drove less than five miles, right into a roadside fire. "We've been burning this land for the past four days," said Rosnan bin Lan, a 40-year-old widow with four children. "No one from the government told us not to."

It's a basic of everyday life in Indonesia that government workers often turn their backs in return for a bribe. But by the time I flew to Jakarta in mid-October 1997, four months after the fires began, a few officials were angry enough to speak up. Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, the environment minister whose Don Quixote-style struggle for political and bureaucratic reform has earned him quiet admiration for persistence and tongue-clucking pity for his inability to implement change, was one of these.

Sarwono assured me that the bad guys were the big guys—Suharto's friends. He helped draw up a list of 29 companies that had set illegal fires. The forestry ministry revoked their logging licenses. Yet the operators weren’t worried; they knew the action didn't have teeth. "I've never seen any government effort succeed in stopping fires from being set," said André Balot, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association.

By February 1998, almost as soon as the rains halted, thousands of fires were sighted again, some in new locations and some where they’d been smoldering all along. Scientists worry that repeated cycles of fire of this magnitude will wreak terrible damage on human and animal life in the region, upsetting ecosystems, killing coral reefs in floods of eroded soil, and destroying one of the world’s last remaining tropical rain forests. Whether the change in government will affect the rate of burning remains an open question.