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Indonesian government unable to stop the burning as peat-swamp forests are taken out.

Raging fires have broken out in the peat-swamp forests of Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, threatening endangered wildlife including the world’s largest population of orangutans.

According to conservationists working in the area, the fires were started by local people and palm-oil plantation owners to clear land for crops.Fires break out most years, but Borneo is currently in the grip of severe drought due to El Niño conditions, and this is causing the fires to spread more rapidly through dry vegetation and peat deposits.

“Orangutan sleeping nests can be seen in trees shrouded in smoke and rhinoceros hornbills fly through the haze overhead,” reported a spokesperson for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project. As well as 8,000 orangutans, these forests are home to eight other primate species, clouded leopards, sun bears and other rare species.

Globally, peatland clearance is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide – 10 per cent of emissions, according to Wetlands International – and contributes significantly to climate change.

Firefighting teams have been working around the clock, but peat fires spread underground and are difficult to control. Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar appealed to governors to stop all burning, but regional autonomy means that authority rests with them. “National and local governments are commited to the ban on burning, but because there are not enough resources, the policy is not well implemented at a grassroots level,” Witoelar said.

Indonesia banned peatland conversion in 2007, but earlier this year the Agricultural Ministry proposed plans to convert millions of hectares to palm oil plantations, in contradiction of this policy. A spokesperson for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) said, however, that in this case there was nothing to link the fires to palm-oil conversion.

Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil, mostly on Borneo. Demand has risen sharply in the past 20 years – it is used in beauty products, foods and for biofuels.

  • Forest fires occur frequently in Indonesia but spread uncontrollably during El Niño years.
  • Peatlands store vast amounts of carbon that is released into the atmosphere when they burn.
  • Orangutan habitat in Kalimantan shrunk by 39 per cent between 1992 and 2002, largely due to logging and conversion to palm oil plantations.
  • Help put out the fires by donating: departments/mpls/wildcru.html (select ‘Emergency Fund’).

Published in BBC Wildlife magazine, October 2009.