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The peatland ecosystems of Central Kalimantan are transitioning from wildfire resistant to wildfire prone; with the potential huge release of carbon from burning peat stocks, it’s time for local and global actions to better protect these lands and communities.

As someone who has visited and observed wildfires in Indonesia for more than 20 years, I’ve witnessed the increasing loss of forest ecosystems and recognize the potential for constructive international assistance.

Sebangau National Park firefighters moving fire equipment on the fire ground. Photos courtesy of Sebangau National Park

In Indonesian, Kalimantan refers to the whole island of Borneo (the third largest in the world), while in English it describes just the 73 per cent of the land mass located in Indonesia, containing about 70 per cent of the island’s population. Kalimantan covers 554,150 kilometers divided into five provinces and the non-Indonesian territories of Borneo, Brunei and East Malaysia.

The meaning of the name Kalimantan – originally Kalamanthana – is burning weather island, referring to the very hot and humid climate.

Kalimantan is home to many cultures; the Dayak, or people of the interior, are Indigenous and have long The peatland ecosystems of Central Kalimantan are transitioning from wildfire resistant to wildfire prone; with the potential huge release of carbon from burning peat stocks, it’s time for local and global actions to better protect these lands and communities.

The smoke produced by burning peat is particularly hazardous. Besides its climate-warming carbon content, peat smoke contains toxins and other particulate matter, and in Indonesia, it is now being measured during times of wildfires as air pollution.

A volunteer firefighter with firefighting patrol boats on a fire in the Sebangau National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. District level volunteer firefighting brigades in Central Kalimantan are locally known as Masyarakat Peduli Api, or MPA firefighters.

The Dayak historically used landscape fire in their agricultural practices to clean up land for slash-andburn farming. This system of using fire to clear farming plots in the rotating system of land use allows for conservation; preselected areas or fields are used for a predetermined number of years before being allowed to go back to nature to recover fertility, while another field is cleared by cutting and burning to be ready for planting until its fertile cycle is complete. Then another field is cleared, and the small scale of slash-and-burn continues as the land recovers after farming.

This system of rotating agriculture and wildfires to clear land has been culturally important. The Dayak use of fire for cleaning and clearing was extremely controlled historically, with organized groups using pre-constructed fire breaks and advance planning to consider predicted winds and fuel conditions.

The Dayak have been masters of using fire as their tool to clear their forest lands. However, cultural, modernizing, and competitive economic forces have brought changes which, during a severe dry season, can quickly transform some areas of the Indonesian part of this island into a thick smoke-filled hazard, lasting months and impacting the surrounding islands and even the cities of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Recent changes in vegetation and culture have swung the Dayaks’ historic mastery of fire in Kalimantan out of balance. The Dayak people are no longer the only Indonesians who live in the interior of Kalimantan where the rainforests long acted as a moist blanket to keep out fires or retard fire growth. Also, within Dayak culture, changes are taking place as the people join the wave of progress brought by globalism sweeping the world which, as a by-product, disconnects us from the natural world and our hands-on, sustainable practices. The landscape is being modified and fire use has fallen outside of its traditional Dayak checks and balances.

While most of the fires in Kalimantan are humancaused, the fire origins are complex. Many past fires arose from the fact that land ownership claims in Kalimantan historically have been legally proven with the use of applying fire to land for cleaning, thus establishing legal usage. Other blazes are ignited by accident or by fishermen to attract more fish or drive away mosquitos, or fires are lit by hunters to attract wildlife, and myriad other reasons.

Sebangau National Park firefighter moving used fire hose across fire ground. Photos courtesy of Sebangau National Park.

But in recent years, during extra hot and dry seasons, when fires do get started in what may now be often lighter fuels, they can spread quicker and carry their flames into forest areas, or even the swamp peat forests. And once the peat layer below ground is alight, it will burn underground down to the water table and then move laterally beneath the surface, consuming important thick layers of organic decaying peat matter.

These blazes can become huge subsurface peat fires with their flames not visible until they occasionally climb up to the surface to consume vegetation. But the heavy smoke from these peat fires, referred to locally as smog / haze, will have local, regional, and global impacts. The Dayak historically did not apply fire to the forest where there were peat layers beneath it, as they were burning for their agricultural fields and they knew their crops would not grow in the peat region.

Peat swamp fires on Borneo are unique for wildfires because the peat itself, created from countless generations of falling then decaying forest organic matter, has been built up into massive lockedup carbon stores — and these peat stores burn underground as a slow smolder, releasing heat and smoke to the surface. These thick carbon stockpiles begin to release their carbon when the peat swamplands they are part of, are dried by drainage canals created to open lands for timber harvest, home building and other uses. If this dried peat is then consumed by fires, the huge pool of stored carbon that had been safely locked away will be released into the atmosphere, causing global concerns for air pollution and climate change.

The smoke produced by burning peat is particularly hazardous. Besides its climate-warming carbon content, peat smoke contains toxins and other particulate matter, and in Indonesia, it is now being measured during times of wildfires as air pollution.

Kalimantan fires became an international concern in 1997 when a massive man-made ecological disaster took place in the peat forests, and since, due to that disaster’s compounding effects, additional new, dryseason peat fires have created an accelerating cycle of fires, peat loss and flooding.

Peat’s organic matter, laying below the surface in a swamp forest, has long played a role as a natural sponge; the small per cent of its decaying matter is able to soak up to nine times its size in water. This layer of peat acts as an absorber to dampen the effects of seasonal flooding river systems. However, now with large areas of peat lost due to wildfire seasons in 1997, 2015 and 2019, the summer dry seasons are followed by rainy seasons and large flows of water are draining from the damaged peat lands into Borneo’s river systems to the sea, leading to much human property loss and misery along the way.

Protecting the remaining peat beneath the swamp forests has become a priority in Central Kalimantan for those understanding the issue, and over the last 20 years, people have been adapting to this situation. Groups of people in Central Kalimantan have been organizing into volunteer fire militia and paid fire forces, poised during dry seasons to fight the flames. New tactics and techniques are being experimented with the help of Japanese, Indonesian and English scientists, and in 2015, there was an international effort to assist in battling many wildfires. Indonesian law enforcement has also been activated to target illegal burners with stiff maximum penalties of up to 15 years in prison and 15 million Indonesian Rupiah in fines.

Internationally, an agreement among Southeast Asian nations has been developed to assist during times of high fire activity, though there are still very real needs for which international assistance would be greatly appreciated and valued globally by reducing the peat fires and their massive carbon releases.

Indonesia is still adapting to the emerging wildfire issues in Kalimantan, and as such, has so far developed only limited capabilities, with a particular need for shared technology in fire detection and wildfire response equipment. Many other fire-prone areas of the world have developed and routinely share these types of technologies, and Indonesia should be added to this group. Indonesia has unique firefighting technology advances to share such as locally developed fire response systems and cloud seeding.

Aircraft dropping water on vegetation has been found to have limited effectiveness on peat fires, and therefore these fires are fought from beneath the ground. The priority is to find a water source on a peat peat nearby; this water source must be safely away from the fire to prevent it from burning and is usually found by drilling down as if through the ice on a frozen lake.

Using an augur to bore beneath the peat to find the water table, crews will tap into the water with a firefighting water pump and install a series of pipes and hose to carry the water to firefighters, who spray it where needed to cool the flames. These firefighting pumps and their draft drill holes are strategically laid out and are manned with crews across the path of wildfire or in its wake, depending on members of the responding agency to be anchor points and working outward with their cooling water while supporting each other. This is hard work, Kalimantan style, but necessary.

Indonesians are also experimenting with Japanese developed soap agents that can be injected underground into the peat to extinguish flames, and the Air Force is using weather modification by cloud seeding to create rain. It is truly a fascinating time of change and adaption for wildfires and Kalimantan.

While these changes in Kalimantan are internal, the funding and support for Indonesia’s efforts can come from beyond the region’s borders. Indonesia’s emerging wildfire issues are global issues due to the potential climate impacts of the massive carbon releases from the peat.

Better protection of the peat reserves could be accomplished by a change of local land ownership laws to allow for proof of ownership to be legally established in new ways, thereby supporting long-term management, conservation and restoration. Instead of the historic local use of fire to clean property, incentives could be created toward fire prevention. Tree planting could be transformed into legal proof of land ownership instead of clearances. Indonesia has huge stockpiles of reforestation funds at the government level, and some of these funds could possibly be invested into bank loans to assist in these efforts and for program development (and local hiring, and training for local landowners).

Water-canal damming is being undertaken to allow the saturation of dried out peat soils; these efforts could be greatly assisted by the international community, and as an essential by-product of healing these soils begin to return more of Kalimantan’s fire-resistant blanket of forest with the added benefit of also assisting in the fire protection of its peat lands.

My understanding is that the damage to the peat lands over the past 20-some years is immense; however, to protect the remaining peat lands and their carbon sinks would require only strategic forest replanting above the damaged areas, such as along waterways once their area’s water levels are again raised from canal damming.

Kalimantan’s El Nino dry season fires, especially in the peat swamp areas, have the potential to affect the world’s climate with their associated huge carbon releases and for this reason alone, Kalimantan and Indonesia should be offered more support internationally in their efforts to help to protect the remaining peat swamp forests.

Kalimantan may be an island that seems isolated and far away, yet when the peat fires burn they impact us all with their carbon releases, whether we can see the smog or not.

Learn more about Kalimantan’s wildfires, nature, and the Dayak culture on Michael Hill’s YouTube channel, Talking Wildfires with Michael Hill.

Michael Hill began this journey in the 1980s as an American wildland firefighter, and across his career worked as a hotshot and smokejumper firefighter. For many years Hill has been, and still is, deeply interested in Indonesia’s wildfires. He serves as an associate editor for WIldfire magazine and hosts a YouTube channel at http://www. youtube.com/@TalkingWildfireWithMichaelHill.