David Biederman is a veteran business journalist and author. He is also a frequent
contributor to The Journal of Commerce.
Fighting Forest Fires in Indonesia
Rainforests are characterized by high rainfall. It might therefore surprised people to learn
that rainforests are at great risk from forest fires.
In Indonesia, with the world’s second largest area of rainforest, fires pose a threat to the
nation’s rich biodiversity, including endangered populations of tigers, elephants,
rhinoceros and orangutan. The major cause of forest fires in Indonesia is illegal
encroachment into forested lands, where people slash-and-burn in order to set up
The pulp & paper industry, by virtue of how plantation concessions are set up, actually
serves to prevent illegal encroachment onto lands. All sustainably-managed plantations
are ringed by a protected buffer zone, which prevents illegal entry and subsequent fires.
Indonesia’s forestry industries are in the midst of rapid modernization. Asia Pulp &
Paper, the world’s third largest paper company, plans to source all of its timber from
forest plantations by 2015. As the company moves to an operating model based on
sustainable forest plantation management, protecting forests from fire damage has
become a top priority.
Since fire prevention is critical for both rainforest conservation and a globally
competitive forestry industry, multiple stakeholders are working together in Indonesia to
ensure that forests are protected.
Rainforest fires are highly destructive. They produce slow creeping flames – unlike the
rapidly spreading blazes that occur in temperate northern forests – that can burn for
months beneath peat lands or tropical undergrowth. Tropical trees have thin bark; a small,
slow-moving rainforest ground fire can destroy 40 percent of the trees in its path.
APP supports a broad array of firefighting initiatives in collaboration with local
communities and the Indonesian Government. Efforts are focused on fire prevention and
control, and community involvement. The goal is twofold; to protect valuable forest
resources and to mitigate the environmental hazards of fires.
As noted, most rainforest fires originate in pasturelands or fields where fires are used for
clearing brush and maintaining crops. During the dry season they can easily spread to
nearby forests. Tens of thousands of such fires are set each year, the vast majority by
ranchers or farmers. Fires are often the result of illegal logging activity and are
sometimes set to divert attention from illegal logging operations.
Most rainforest fires are extinguished by high moisture content beneath the tree canopy,
or by the arrival of the rainy season. During the dry season and especially during the el
Nino years, rainforest fires can burn on, with devastating consequences.
The 1997-1998 forest fires in Indonesia associated with el Nino led to the widespread
release of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gasses. The fires caused severe
ecological damage and health problems in Sumatra and billions of dollars in regional
economic loss. The resulting haze damaged rice production, and spread as far as the
Philippines, Sri Lanka and Australia.
APP has a strict no-burn policy. Open burning is illegal in Indonesia, although
enforcement across the 3000-mile archipelago is difficult, making the voluntary
firefighting efforts of companies like APP more critical.
APP works closely with Community Fire Guard (CFG) organizations across Indonesia to
educate communities about fire control and the dangers of forest fires, and to provide
incentives to discourage open burning. The company actively recruits company
employees and members of neighboring communities to participate in CFGs, and
provides them with training and tools.
Suppliers are strongly encouraged to work with local and regional CFGs as part of APP’s
broader sustainable forest plantation management programs. PT Arara Abadi, a pulpwood
supplier that manages over 1.2 million acres of forest and forest plantation, employs a
firefighting system that is considered one of the best in Asia.
Like APP, PT Arara Abadi adheres to a strict no-burn policy and has a three-pronged
program in place that includes fire prevention, fire control and community involvement.
Every PT worker, including independent contractors, is given fire awareness training.
The company has 60 firefighting crews with over 600 people covering 6 districts. Within
each district are 3–5 sub-districts. A full-time fire marshal in each district and another in
each sub-district work to ensure that the company’s firefighting policies are implemented
from top to bottom. The marshals meet at last once a month to confer on firefighting
A satellite is used to pinpoint potential or existing fires over Sumatra at least six times per
day. The satellite data is relayed to the National Environmental Agency (NEA) in
Singapore, where it is quickly analyzed. “Hot spots” that are either not fires (e.g.,
warehouses with dark roofs, ships at sea) or small fires in non-critical areas are ruled out.
A fire danger index evaluates the remaining risks and identifies hot spots that require
The data, accurate to within one kilometer, is relayed immediately to the appropriate
district manager, who is contacted again within 30 minutes to determine what action has
been taken. District teams are required to file a report within four hours of initial contact
with the hot spot.
As APP moves closer to full reliance on sustainably sourced plantation timber, fire
prevention and control will only grow in importance.
“APP will continue to battle forest fires in Indonesia with the help of our colleagues and
neighbors,” said Stephan Sinisuka, head of APP stakeholder relations and
communications for regions in East Asia, Australia and America.