Preparing for forest and land fires in Indonesia: The adverse effects of burning peatlands

News & Publicationon December 19, 2021

Ahead of International Human Solidarity Day on Monday December 20, Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) intern Abbey Beare explains the precarious relationship between peatland forests and climate change. The potential for peatland forests to combat climate change, as well as to contribute negatively towards climate change, is unpacked and explored. The article also provides practical advice on how individuals and communities can respond to peatland fires.

The role of peatland forests

Peatlands are a unique part of the Indonesian natural environment that play an important role in maintaining biodiversity. When well looked after, peatlands play a positive role in environmental health and mitigating the effects of climate change. This is because healthy peatlands absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store this carbon in their peat soils.

The importance of peatlands storing carbon

In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide gas traps heat and warms the planet. This is a natural process and is essential to life on earth. However, post-industrial human behaviour has led to a significant increase in the presence of greenhouse gases, to the point where too much heat is now being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is referred to as the “greenhouse effect” and has contributed to an overall increase in temperatures globally, this phenomenon is known as global warming. Scientists have observed that these increases in global temperatures have led to damaging changes to climate and weather patterns, which are commonly and collectively referred to as “climate change”. Some of these changes include rising sea levels, melting glaciers and increased incidences of natural disaster. For this reason, when peatlands are absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere, they are keeping heat-trapping gases out of the atmosphere and are thus helping to combat the global climate change crisis.

Climate issues linked to peatland forest fires

Despite the positive role that peatland forests can play in maintaining the environment, when peatland forests are destroyed, the carbon they store is released into the atmosphere. The fire, haze and carbon generated from peatland forest fires are far more severe than that which is generated by regular land and forest fires. Peatland fires can also burn under the ground, meaning that extremely large amounts of water are required to extinguish them. In addition, often when the fires appear extinguished from above, they continue to smoulder and emit toxic smoke from below.

Increased incidences of peatland forest fires

Peatland forests were once naturally resilient to fire, but peatland forest fires have become increasingly common. Scientists argue that deforestation, drainage and drought all contribute largely to the increased susceptibility of Indonesian peatland forests to fire. The Indonesian government stated that in 2015, more than 2.6 million hectares of land was burnt in Indonesia, which is more than 4.5 times the size of Bali.

The good news

Luckily, the Indonesian government has been taking strides to restore and preserve peatland forests. The government has set targets to reduce levels of deforestation each year, to restore close to 2.5 million hectares of degenerated peatland and has allocated billions of dollars towards its projects. It is hoped that Indonesian peatlands can be protected, preserved and serve their purpose of mitigating the effects of climate change.

Preparation and awareness

It is important for communities to be aware of the air quality where they live. The smoke emitted from peatland fires is toxic, and there are ways for people to find out whether the air they are breathing has been impacted. Information on the air quality in multiple regions in Indonesia can be found at: http://www.bmkg.go.id/kualitas-udara/informasi-partikulat-pm10.bmkg.

In the event of forest and land burning, it is important to increase ventilation in the home through the use of air conditioning or air filtration if possible. In order to protect the respiratory system, it is recommended that people wear a mask outside (N95 mask is recommended). People should also wash their face and hands after outdoor activity. People should always follow directions from health and fire authorities.