Division of Ecological Sciences
23 October 1998

Forest Fires:
Causes and Impacts, Prevention and Rehabilitation

Information Note on Recent, Current and Future Activities within UNESCO's Programmes

Prepared for the FAO Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires Rome, 28-30 October 1998

The recent extensive fires in forested lands in many regions of the world - Sumatra, Kalimantan and other parts of South East Asia, Siberia and other eastern regions of the EurAsian land mass, Amazonia, Mexico and Southeastern USA, lands around the Mediterranean basin, etc. - have served to focus public and political attention on approaches to rehabilitation as well as on prevention. UNESCO has a certain experience in these fields, from both a technical and operational angle, as indicated in the following summaries.

Technical information on the rehabilitation of fire-affected lands

Secondary forests, degraded zones and other human-impacted areas comprise an increasingly large proportion of terrestrial ecosystems, in tropical, subtropical, mediterranean and indeed other regions. Such systems have received relatively little attention compared with 'intact' systems, and there is a growing need for improved scientific understanding on which the effective management (including the rehabilitation of degraded areas) can be based. Several initiatives sponsored or supported by UNESCO have sought to compile and compare existing information on rehabilitation processes and practices, and to plan future collaborative activities.

In the mediterranean-climate region, syntheses of information in the past have included a multi-authored review of fire and fuel management, published as MAB Technical Note 11.

In South East Asia, several UNESCO regional technical seminars on tropical forest rehabilitation have been held: in Kuala Lumpur (February 1992), Hanoi (June-July 1993) and Brisbane (November 1991 and February 1997). In July 1993, a regional workshop on the rehabilitation of degraded lands took place in Thailand, following an earlier study tour to field sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in April 1993. Bringing together recently published work on the rehabilitation of degraded lands was the aim of a 468-page annotated bibliography published in late 1995 by the UNESCO Office in Jakarta.

Private sector-government co-operation in resource management at Kutai, Kalimantan

At Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan (Indonesia), an association has been formed between the park authorities and private companies involved in the exploitation of coal, petroleum, natural gas or forest products within or adjacent to the park. These companies, are represented on the Friends of Kutai, a mechanism for mobilizing support from private corporations for national park management and for the Kutai National Park Management Support Project initiated in mid-1995 as a joint initiative of the Government of Indonesia, UNDP and UNESCO.

Activities include rehabilitation of degraded forest areas, integration of park zonation with regional land use plans, agricultural extension work in the park buffer zone, and preparation of conservation education materials for inclusion in local school curricula. Factors contributing to initial achievements include the operation starting at a relatively small scale, the importance of enlisting the active support of at least one company from the very beginning, avoidance of creating a new bureaucracy, and basing activities on a bottom-up approach. As such, the Friends of Kutai operation has implications for promoting industry-government co-operation in protected area management and degraded land rehabilitation elsewhere in Indonesia and in other countries.

An overview of the project has been prepared by the UNESCO Chief Technical Adviser (Raleigh Blouch) and two Indonesian experts (Warsito and Yaya Mulyana) and published in UNESCO's quarterly periodical Nature & Resources (Volume 34, Number 1, 1998). An evaluation report on the two-year UNDP-UNESCO project at Kutai provides additional background and information.

Ocean-based data for forecasting forest fires

Fires are more likely to occur during exceptionally arid conditions like those brought about in South East Asia by the occurrence of El Niño events every four years or so on average. El Niño events are now predictable with a high degree of accuracy nine months to one year ahead of time, allowing preventive measures to be developed and safety precautions to be taken. The forecasts are made using advanced numerical models that threat the atmosphere and the ocean as a coupled system. The data used by the models to make the predictions come from a variety of observing systems in the Pacific Ocean and South East Asia, including:

These various observing systems form parts of the Initial Observing System of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), which is sponsored by the IOC, WMO, UNEP and ICSU.

Climatic variations and their effects in South East Asia

For several years, the UNESCO Office in Jakarta has been carrying out ongoing assessments of climatic variations of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the occurrence of drought in Indonesia and other countries of the region such as the Philippines. Examples of long-term data sets have been compiled and analysed are those of air temperatures for Jakarta from 1865 to the present. Approaches and results have been described in volumes in a series on 'Contending with Global Change' produced by the UNESCO Office in Jakarta, and in research papers in the open scientific literature (see for example two papers by J.R.E. Harger in the journal Atmospheric Environment, Volume 29, Number 16, 1995, including one on 'ENSO variations and drought occurrence in Indonesia and the Philippines').

Approaches to fire prevention and management

Field research has underlined the importance of forest cover in ensuring a number of ecological services, including those of preventing soil erosion and mitigating against the spread of fires. Thus, during the 1982-1983 fires in eastern Kalimantan, burned-out areas were mainly confined to logged-over forests, with intact forest systems remaining largely unaffected. More generally, testing of integrated approaches to sustainable development is one of the principal aims of sites contributing to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Biosphere reserves contribute to the in situ conservation of biological diversity, as do a number of sites inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. At a number of specific Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage sites, national collaborating institutions carry out fire-related research and management, including Kakadu (Australia), Cerrado (Brazil), Comoé (Côte d'lvoire), Galapagos (Ecuador), Cibodas (Indonesia), Amboseli (Kenya), Yellowstone (USA).

Inputs into meetings, studies and projects

Technical and other inputs have been provided into a range of recent activities organized by national institutions relating to fire ecology and management, including the effects of El Niño. Thus, in Indonesia, examples include:

Project on the underlying causes and impacts of fires in Southeast Asia

Plans have taken shape in 1997-98 for a project on the underlying causes and impacts of fires in Southeast Asia, as a joint initiative of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) and UNESCO. The project builds on existing co-operation between the three organizations, for example in a project on 'Alternatives to Slash and Burn'.

A three-tiered approach is envisaged, including (1) a general overview of the fire situation for the entire region, (2) a more detailed assessment in Sumatra and Kalimantan to examine the extent to which their fire characteristics are representative of Indonesia as a whole, and (3) a detailed assessment of causes and effects at the site specific level with several detailed study sites in Kalimantan and Sumatra. The research is designed in a modular way: each module can stand independently but complements and supports the others. The general assessment will identify where and when fires have occurred in Indonesia over time, whfla the site-specific assessments will identify, over time, what ldnd of actors/agents have caused certain types of fire and why.

A project proposal was developed in 1997 and has subsequently been revised through a process of successive approximation and in the light of discussions with various Indonesian institutions and interested donor agencies. Financial support for the first two parts of the project hasbeen approved by USAID.


Selected bibliography

Agee, J.K. (ed.). 1979. Fire and Fuel Management in Mediterranean-Climate Ecosystents:

Research Ptiotities and Programmes. MAB Technical Note I 1. UNESCO, Paris.

Blouch, R.A.; Warsito; Yaya Mulyana. 1998. The Friends of Kutai National Park: partnership of a protected area with the private sector. Nature & Resources, 34(l): 42-51.

Lamb, D.; Howell, S.; Read, T.; Broekstra, L. 1995. RehabiUtation of Degraded Tropical Forests: An Annotated Bibliography. UNESCO Office, Jakarta. 468 pp.

Stolle, F.; Dennis, R.; Byron, N.; Tomich, T.P. 1998. Fires, a review of the 1997-1998 fire event in Sumatra. (Draft manuscript).


Malcolm Hadley
UNESCO, Division of Ecological Sciences


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