Scientists identify another cause of the fires in Indonesia

For decades, the countries on either side of the Malacca Strait have been arguing about what causes the annual fires on Sumatra Island in Indonesia and what can be done to stop them. It’s not only smallholders and plantations, say Andree Ekadinata, Meine van Noordwijk, Suseno Budidarsono and Sonya Dewi


‘We have identified another group that has a hand in starting the fires in Sumatra’, said Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Science Advisor with the World Agroforestry Centre and leader of the Centre’s research team.

Previously, the finger had been pointed exclusively at both small- and large-scale farmers in Riau province on Sumatra Island, who were blamed for the choking smoke smothering Singapore and parts of Malaysia in June 2013.

Forest Fires Cause Smog in Dumai City Riau Province

A woman in Dumai, Riau, wears a mask to protect herself from the smoke haze. Credit: GP04N34 ©Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

‘The third category of fire starters we call “mid-level entrepreneurs”. These entrepreneurs buy unregulated access to land for oil palm and clear it by burning, seemingly unrestrained by government’, said van Noordwijk.

The research team at the World Agroforestry Centre, who have been studying land conversion in Sumatra, say this third group is made up of local land investors who operate outside the government system, making them potentially more difficult to regulate.

‘These people acquire land under informal rules at village level’, said Suseno Budidarsono, a researcher with the Centre. ‘They effectively sidestep the Government’s land-use system. They bring in their own labour to clear the land for oil palm, regardless of the land’s formal government status and in the absence of any permits to do so’.

According to the team, policies and policing need to be adjusted to deal with the newly identified group if the annual fires and subsequent haze that blankets neighbouring countries are to be reduced. Holding plantation companies accountable for the fires within their boundaries would help reduce the problem but not extinguish it. They have published their findings in a policy brief.

About half of the fire ‘hot spots’ in Riau province are on land with legal permits for large-scale operations (industrial timber, oil palm and logging). The rest occur as part of illegal activities, in areas which have been slated for conservation or non-production.

Forest Fires in Sumatra, Riau Province

Smoke rises from fires on recently cleared peatland in the PT Rokan Adiraya Plantation oil palm plantation near Sontang village in Rokan Hulu, Riau, Sumatra. Credit: GP04N3V © Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

These hot spots are mostly concentrated in three districts within Riau province. Some neighbouring districts with similar conditions have so far avoided the problem this year, which suggests that lessons might be learnt about governance.

The fire-haze episode straddling the Strait of Malacca in June 2013 has reignited a decades-long debate about responsibility. In the current debate, finger pointing still alternates between the small- and large-scale agricultural operators. The latter include companies with headquarters in Singapore and Malaysia, where the undesirable haze accompanies the financial returns on their investments.

Before 1998, the blame for starting the fires was put exclusively on smallholders’ ‘shifting cultivation’ techniques, with large-scale plantations and development projects protected from any criticism by the government.

But the 1997/8 fires in Sumatra and the change of regime in Indonesia threw new light onto the debate and it became evident that burning was the cheapest option widely used by all farmers, whether on a small or large scale or on peat or mineral soils.




Ekadinata E, van Noordwijk M, Budidarsono S, Dewi S. 2013. Hotspots in Riau, haze in Singapore: the June 2013 event analyzed. ASB Policybrief 33. Nairobi: ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins.


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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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