Borneo is Burning
Enormous tropical peat-land fires scorched the island of Borneo in 2019, threatening precious wildlife and habitat. The 2019 fires rivaled the intense infernos that left 5 million acres of the Kalimantan province severely charred in 2015. Fortunately, impeccable development fostered by projects on the ground in Borneo have resulted in better coordinated firefighting efforts as well as more successful preventative approaches for the future, according to a new report.
In November of 2019, the Orangutan Conservancy granted the Borneo Nature Foundation‘s emergency firefighting funds request. We are grateful to be able to support such an effective and important organization on-the-ground in Borneo. We would also like to recognize our amazing supporters who allowed us to grant this firefighting request. We would not be able to support such superb organization with your continued support!
A Better Approach
The Borneo Nature Foundation took the tragic fires in 2015 as a chance to prepare for future dry seasons by developing a major canal-blocking program intended to re-wet the dried out peat-swamps and community seedling nurseries. This program aimed to re-establish critical forested lands that had been burnt in 2015. Additionally BNF created two independent, community firefighting teams that were then integrated with local agencies to create a more effective fire-fighting and prevention approach. Not only did the wildlife of Borneo benefit from this coordinated effort, spear-headed by the Borneo Nature Foundation but local schools, children groups, and community members were given masks to help protect them from the poisonous haze that swept over Central Kalimantan for several months of the fire season. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry as cited by the Borneo Nature Foundation, fires burned 8,578km2 of land and forest; the poisonous smoke put 10 million children at health risk, and in the city of Palangka Raya over 11,000 people were treated for upper respiratory infections in just the span of 5 months.
Almost 300 hotspots were reported to be within the boundary of Sebangau National Park, home to the largest population of critically endangered Borneo orangutans (~6,000 individuals) as well as over 1,000 plant and animal species, with 46 of those species being part of a group that is globally threatened.
Peatlands typically form in regions that receive high rainfall, these areas of land can be compared to a giant sponge wherein the ground retains an extremely high volume of water and can even rise above surrounding sea levels. While natural peat-swamps are naturally fire resistant, both human activity and climate change have caused them to become kindling during the dry season. Logging and agriculture industries have built major canals to float out timber and to control water levels have resulted in drained peat. The composition of dried out peat is extremely flammable and results in fires burning both above and below the ground level, making peatland fires extremely difficult to extinguish. This combined with the fact that the dry seasons are becoming longer and longer each year, a result of both climate change and El Nino events have created severe fire season in Southeast Asia.
The Borneo Nature Foundation has become a leading expert on fire prevention and response in Borneo and has developed a four-part plan that not only includes and addresses wildlife concerns but also involves community protection and outreach as well as teamwork with the local government and community individuals.
BNF has developed a four-part plan (prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery) to manage the fire season. They have dedicated time and resources to educating the local community to create a stronger understanding of wildfire causes. This has become a long-overdue process to educating the local communities on the long-term causes of fire-starting behavior such as land-clearing by burning. They have also adopted strategies to reduce fire susceptibility in forested areas which include restoring the natural flooded swamp conditions to keep the peatlands wet and fire resistant. This entails blocking previous dams in logging canals, BNF has reported constructing 685 dams on 15 canals. Additionally, BNF has developed sophisticated fire preparedness strategies by implementing firefighting team training, local coordination systems, and of course sourcing fire equipment.
Over 16,000 hotspots were reported in 2019 in Indonesia between July and November during the dry season. BNF reports their firefighting efforts as follows; 182 firefighting team days, 4 firefighting teams involved, 126 firefighters on the ground, 24 major fires suppressed, 17 water pumps, 67 fire-hoses, 1,615 masks distributed, 0 forest loss in the research area. BNF implemented a total of 395 fire-related interventions, resulting in 24 major fires being addressed and resolved by their supported firefighting teams. Finally, BNF’s recovery strategy has resulted in a better understanding of post-fire results and how to better prepare for the future. This not only includes blocking more canals but also creating and supporting community seedling nurseries to aid in reforestation and local community awareness and education. BNF reports 50,00 trees being planted in the burnt forest areas and 166 community members beneficiaries of green jobs, like the community seedling nursery initiative.
BNF plans to develop two more firefighting teams in 2020 and to grow the community seedling nursery initiative to create more income sources for the surrounding community as well as to support participation and leadership of women in the community.
OC’s Emergency Firefighting Fund
Every year the Orangutan Conservancy keeps a special reserve of funds for emergency firefighting requests. The dry season can be unpredictable and it is difficult to anticipate who will need funding and when, so our emergency firefighting fund was thus created to provide support to projects on-the-ground in Southeast Asia to help support critical projects in their firefighting efforts. This fund not only assists research projects in protecting camps and research centers, but it directly protects critical orangutan populations and habitats. Just last year OC granted an emergency firefighting request to the Borneo Nature Foundation which helped protect the largest population of the critically endangered Borneo orangutan in the Sebangau National Forest. We receive multiple requests every single year for emergency firefighting funds, and last year we were able to fund TWO of them. Help OC fund even more in 2020 by donating to our Emergency Firefighting Fund today!
We would like to thank the Borneo Nature Foundation for generating this informative report on the fire season in Borneo. Without information like this we could not convey the importance and the severity of the dry season in places like Central Kalimantan, nor could we generate the support needed to defend these critical habitats and species at risk.