Causes and Impacts of Forest Fires:
A Case Study from East Kalimantan, Indonesia

(IFFN No. 22 - April 2000, p. 35-40)


The 1997-98 Indonesian forest and land fires affected more than 5.2 million ha in East Kalimantan (Hoffmann et al. 1999; see Hoffmann et al., this IFFN volume). A prolonged drought of almost one year, caused by a strong El Nińo - Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, created an extraordinary fire-prone situation, that lead to the worst ever fire catastrophe of the province.

According to local farmers of the indigenous Dayak population, 'these fires did not fall down from the skies...'. So, where did they come from?

The culprits, slash-and-burn farmers as well as plantation companies were soon identified by the reporting media, although journalists rarely got into rural areas where the tragedy took its course. But also the scientific literature remained rather general about fire causes with the exception of a few case studies (cf. comments of Potter and Lee 1998; for more detailed case studies see: Abberger 1999, Aspianur and Mujarni 1999, Colfer 1999, Gönner 1998 and 1999, State Ministry for Environment Republic of Indonesia and UNDP 1998, Vayda 1998). Yet, the understanding of the complex causal interactions leading to forest fires is essential in order to anticipate future fire emergencies and to take measurements to reduce fire risk.

The study presented here was carried out in the Jempang sub-district of East Kalimantan, covering the whole fire period from September 1997 until April 1998.

Study Area and Chronology

Jempang sub-district mainly consists of secondary lowland dipterocarp forests managed by local Dayak people since more than 350 years. The predominant land use is an integrated agroforestry system based on annually rotating swidden fields (rainfed upland rice) and hundreds of forest gardens (fruits, rubber, rattan). Fire is traditionally used for preparing the swiddens, which measure on average 1.5 ha. The burning of swiddens is generally done between September and early November in a controlled way. In dry years, so-called ladakng firebreaks are established around the fields to prevent the fire from escaping into nearby forest gardens.

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Fig.1. Location of the study area in the Indonesian Province East Kalimantan

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Fig.2. Ladakng firebreak.

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Fig.3. Preparation of a firebreak.

This traditional land use pattern has changed substantially during the 1990s. In 1993 a combined HTI industrial forest plantation (HTI: hutan tanaman industri).and transmigration project cleared several hundred hectare of managed forest. This lead to severe land-rights conflicts with the local population, which are still unsolved, although the project stopped its operation in 1997/98. Then, in early 1996 a large Indonesian oil palm company started opening another plantation project with a total planned area of 96,000 ha of which approximately 30,000 ha were cleared by 1997. These activities caused new land tenure problems, and first violent conflicts rose in mid 1996.

Most conflicts were related to the company's way of compensating converted forest gardens. Occasionally, gardens were 'sold' by villagers who did not hold valid rights according the traditional adat law, while others were cleared without the permit of the owner. Hence, those garden owners who wanted to keep their gardens labled them with signs saying 'do not convert'. When the fires started in September 1997, these gardens were the very sites that burned first. The fires continued until early November when rain finally came. However, they started again in early February 1998 and lasted until April, affecting approximately 75-80% of the forest gardens in the main research area. Village life suffered in many respects such as due to material losses (rattan stocks, rubber and fruit trees, crops, extracted forest resources), health problems (respiratory problems, diseases due to the drought, nutritional problems due to failed harvests and a general lack of resources), emotional problems (despair, sadness, anger, frustration, rage) or because of a devastated infrastructure (impassable forest trails and rivers due to fallen trees). For more details about the damage and the responses by the local population see Gönner (1999) or State Ministry for Environment Republic of Indonesia and UNDP (1998).

Fire Causes

If the fire did not fall down from the skies, where did it come from. The general answer of the farmers was that the fires were caused by the oil palm company. The rationale behind this answer is simple: During the ENSO 1982/83 there was no oil palm company and there were no fires; now there was the company and there were fires. Although this explanation sounds too simplistic it contains a certain truth, yet not in a monocausal sense.

Causes and effects of the fires and the drought were assessed through interviews of key-informants, semi-structured interviews, and field observation during the fires. The explanations were accepted if they were positively cross-checked between different trustworthy informants or if they were eye-witnessed by myself or by my wife. These data suggest four major groups of fire causes:

Fires caused by the oil palm company's land clearing activities

Up to December 1997 and again in February 1998 workers of the oil palm company were observed by key informants and by ourselves setting secondary forests on fire. These forests were part of the company's concession area and were to be opened in the forthcoming months. It was widely assumed that plantation companies tried to save expenses by using of fire, which is cheap compared with 'zero burning' techniques (e.g. Schindler 1998). Some of these fires had obviously entered local forest gardens. Although there were most probably many cases of fires unintendendly destroying villager's gardens, there is also substantial evidence of fires set by oil palm company workers specifically to burn forest gardens, that might even have happened without the knowledge of the company's management. In some cases field assistants seem to have ordered the burning of enclosed gardens to reduce the financial compensation without the field manager's knowledge. As they were given a certain budget for handling compensation problems with local people (in general with the help of local negotiators), they tried to save money by paying less compensation for burned gardens.

In other cases the company's concession area overlaped with gardens of villagers, who wanted to keep them (cf. above). However, during our field trips we found many such gardens burned, eventhough they were not linked to bush land or to other fires, but were completely isolated within a cleared part of the future plantation. There is no direct proof, that these gardens were burned by the company, but the company remained the overall winner in these cases.

Fires for land clearing caused by farmers

Until the first rain came in early November 1997 no farmer in the investigated villages had burned to prepare a swidden, although several had slashed their sites. A major reason for not burning during the drought was the general opinion that such a fire might become out of control. Hence, it was quite likely that the fire would escape into one of the hundreds of forest gardens. The origin of such a fire would have been obvious and the high traditional adat fine was enough to prevent farmers from taking this risk.

Few people had burned small areas of bush land to prepare gardens. In at least one case such a fire might have escaped and caused immense damage in one of the villages by burning several hundred forest gardens.

Arson linked to financial compensation

Besides the arson committed by workers of the oil palm company, there were also villagers who set other people's gardens on fire. According to several informants this was mainly induced by the relatively big sums of compensation money. In cases where people wanted to 'sell' their gardens to the company, gardens of people, who did not want to 'sell' but whose land was in-between were some times burned in order to provide access for the company. In other cases large forest gardens, which were likely to receive big compensation were burned out of envy.

Other kinds of arson

Once the fires had destroyed many forest gardens, some villagers just did not want others to be better off, not only regarding possible financial compensation but also future income from rattan, rubber or fruit. Remarks like 'if I lost my gardens, others should also lose theirs' were frequently heard, and there was a local saying 'if it burns on the left side of the path, it will also burn on its right side'. This mental frustration coincided in some cases with long term feuds, which were revitalized through fire. This turned out to be a vicious circle, as revange was often taken just on suspicion.

In at least one other case the harvest of illegal external loggers was burned by angry villagers.

Incidental fires

Fires probably also occurred incidentally by discarded cigarette butts or escaping camp fires. A simple test proved that a glowing cigarette could cause a forest fire. In one case a Kapur tree (Dryobalanops spec.) kept glowing inside its stem for five months until the fire broke out again.

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Fig.4. A forest fire approaches the village


The evidence of the local fire causes in Jempang sub-district indicates the crucial role of social conflicts and large-scale land use changes. The use of 'fire as a weapon' is also reported from other areas of Kalimantan (Colfer 1999), as well as the link between plantation concessions and forest fires (Hoffmann et al. 1999). Nevertheless, the processes leading to the use of fire as a weapon are complex and often recursive.

One of the most fatal feedback loop was the relation between fires and emotions. Whatever the actual fire cause was, a person who has lost his or her resources to a forest fire ascribes the cause of this disaster to other actors (personal enemies, the oil palm company), which often results in new revange fires. The trigger of this circus vitiosus, however, was the oil palm company which destabilized the local setting to an extend that the farmers had never experienced before. Traditional conflict management strategies failed to work, and social unrest resulted out of the insensitive modus operandi of the company.

Finally, the local people hit back in this conflict, and the company was forced to stop its illegal operation (cf. website at But by then hundreds of forest gardens were cleared, and thousands of hectare were burned.


This study was supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ - German Agency for Technical Cooperation), Flanking Programme for Tropical Ecology (PN: 90.2136.1), and the GTZ Project Promotion of Sustainable Forest Management Systems in East Kalimantan (SFMP).


Christian Gönner
University of Freiburg
Department of Ethnology



Abberger, H.M. 1999. Evaluasi Data Kebakaran Hutan dan Lahan di Kawasan Bukit Soeharto Tahun 1994-97.

Aspiannur, and Mujarni Baraq. 1999. Beberapa Sebab Kebakaran Hutan dan Lahan Hutan Wisata Bukit Soeharto Tahun 1997-1998. IFFM Document No.1.

Colfer, Carol J.P. 1999. Ten propositions to explain Kalimantan's fires (draft).

Gönner, C., 1999. Causes and effects of forest fires: A case study from a Sub-District in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Paper presented on the ICRAF workshop on 'Environmental Services and Land-Use Change. Bridging the Gap between Policy and Research in Southeast Asia.' 30 May to 2 June 1999, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Hoffmann, A., A.Hinrichs, and F.Siegert. 1999. Fire Damage in East Kalimantan in 1997/98 Related to Land Use and Vegetation Classes: Satellite Radar Inventory Results and Proposals for Further Actions. Technical Cooperation between Indonesia and Germany, Ministry of Forestry and Estate Crops (MoFEC) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ).

Potter, L., and J.Lee. 1998. Oil palm in Indonesia: Its role in forest conversion and the fires of 1997/98. A report for the WWF - Indonesia Programme.

Schindler, L. 1998. The Indonesian fires and SE Asean Haze 1997/98. Review, damages, causes and necessary steps. Paper presented at the Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on Transboundary Atmospheric Pollution, 27.-28. May 1998, Singapore.

State Ministry for Environment Republic of Indonesia, and UNDP.1998. Forest and Land Fires in Indonesia. Impacts, Factors and Evaluation. Vol. 1.

Vayda, A.P., 1998. Finding causes of the 1997-98 Indonesian Forest Fires: Problems and possibilities. A report on preliminary research (draft).

Country Notes
IFFN No. 22