FAQs about the Borneo rainforest

5. Why are there so many forest fires in Borneo?

Burning is the most economical method to clear land for planting. After a forest area is deforested, the wood debris and other vegetable materials remains were burned. As the oil palm has a surprising adaptation to the scorched lands, they found that this plant was the ideal one to replace the felled trees. The fire was also used to evict occupiers from lots in the fight for possession of the land. These fires were used in a controlled manner, but not infrequently they went out of control, especially during droughts, spreading rapidly and forcefully, burning large areas of forest. In 1997 and 1998 two of the worst fires in Indonesia occurred. Losses devastated more than 10 million hectares of woodland, causing serious health problems for the population and affecting the tourism industry.

But there was an additional problem with the burning, perhaps the most serious: the Borneo forests retained immense amounts of carbon – Mongabay explains – that were released during the logging to clear the land for the plantations. In the southern sections of the island, much of this jungle grew in peat bogs, composed of deep layers of organic matter accumulated over thousands of years. To plant in peat, palm oil producers dug huge ditches to drain the water. This caused them to decompose rapidly, which released powerful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The dry peat was also highly flammable… In 2006, Indonesia experienced one of the worst seasons of fires that are remembered, when smoke from fires all over Sumatra and Kalimantan triggered a carbon bomb and covered the region in a haze visible from space. That year the fires carbonized a thousand orangutans.

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