Fire and haze in Southeast Asia Investigating the facts for policy


In 2013, windblown smoke from fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, blanketed neighboring Singapore and Malaysia in a thick haze. The crisis led to Singapore’s highest air pollution levels on record and spurred action by the countries affected.

But the forces behind the fires – who, how and why – were as hazy as Southeast Asia’s skies, and without that clear understanding, efforts to end the fires have had little effect.

Leveraging CIFOR’s experience and contacts in the area, David Gaveau, Mohammad Agus Salim and their team set out to determine the facts. To gather as much objective information as possible, they used drones, satellites, remote sensing, rainfall records and more. And this year, with haze once again clouding the skies, their findings have been in demand by Southeast Asia’s governments.

In 2015, CIFOR will continue the research through the DFID-funded project Political Economy of Fire and Haze in Indonesia, to understand how people on the ground perceive and explain the fires.

Read more:

Mapping the Indonesian fires behind the 2013 transboundary haze

Funding partner:
CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

Information outreach

  • 1 online fire map
  • 3 videos produced
  • 7 blogs published
  • 7 workshops and presentations

CIFOR has taken opportunities to direct the research to high-level officials – including the President of Indonesia, the Indonesia Climate Change Center of the National Council on Climate Change, and a presentation viewed by Singapore’s Senior Minister of State (Health).

Information uptake

  • 2 high-level government references to the research
  • 12 print, TV, radio & online stories by external media agencies

Decision makers, including high-level government officials from Singapore and Indonesia, have requested and quoted the research findings.

Fact 1
Most burning is on forest cemeteries – areas of land that have already been cleared of rainforest but not yet used. Most of these forest cemeteries are on peatland.

  • trees

    Trees help to keep peatland wet and fire resistant.

  • coal

    But exposure to air dries out the peat, turning it into a young coal.

  • fire

    A few weeks without rain can lead to uncontrolled fires, especially when fires are already used to expand agriculture.1

1 Correction: This statement has been amended. The original stated that, "A few days without rain can spark fires, even without the help of a match." However, CIFOR research shows that fires are deliberately lit.

The same area will burn again and again regardless of whether it is a drought year or not. Fires are likely to occur more often and become less predictable.

David Gaveau
CIFOR Scientist

Fact 2
These smoky fires don’t flame but smolder, releasing huge volumes of greenhouse gases.

In one week of the June 2013 fires, an area of about 160,000 ha (less than 1% of Indonesia) burned, emitting the equivalent of 5%-10% of Indonesia’s average annual emissions between 2000 and 2005.

Burning peat has massive consequences for the health of people and the environment.

David Gaveau
CIFOR Scientist

Fact 3
One large concession for oil palm can also host small businesses, a community or two, and migrants looking for land.

Identifying the culprits and motivations behind the fires is far more complex than pinpointing hotspots on a map.

We’ve gone as far as we could using these techniques. Now it’s time to go in the field and really understand who is responsible, and who is gaining and losing from these fires.

David Gaveau
CIFOR Scientist

Related publication

Fires in forests and former forestlands occur in Indonesia in the dry season every year, particularly in the provinces of Riau and Jambi on the island of Sumatra, and West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The haze that spreads to other countries is mostly caused by smoldering (flameless) fires on peatland. Most fires are deliberately lit.