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People in Indonesia, Singapore, and parts of Malaysia are currently suffering from debilitating levels of haze resulting from forest fires. Air quality levels in Singapore have deteriorated to the worst levels ever recorded on the island, while local airports in Indonesia and some schools in Malaysia have had to close. Almost all of the recent fires (June 12-20) have occurred in Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia.
While there’s been heated debate on the location, cause, and nature of the fires, WRI has compiled some initial data that reveals that there are some patterns. Relatively few fires have occurred in protected areas and selective logging concessions. Furthermore, half of the fires are burning on timber and oil palm plantations. Although it is illegal for companies in Indonesia to start forest or land fires, several companies have used fires for land clearing in the past. It will be important to gather more detailed information about the exact location of the fires and their causes, which could have important implications for the companies and government agencies involved.
A Look Inside the Forest Fire Data
WRI gathered information from NASA’s Active Fire Data, which uses satellite data to pinpoint the location of fires in near real time, together with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s concession maps for oil palm, logging concessions, and timber plantation licenses. We counted the number of NASA fire alerts in each concession in Indonesia and tabulated the results.
While this is a preliminary snapshot, we can note some interesting trends:
- Most of the NASA fire alerts are located within the province of Riau, and chiefly within the boundaries of timber plantation and oil palm concessions. About 52 percent of the total fires occur within these concession areas. (See more information at the end of this post.) Far fewer fire alerts are located in protected forests or in concessions for selective logging.
- According to available official data, companies that are part of the Sinar Mas and Raja Garuda Mas (RGM) groups own the concessions licenses where the largest numbers of fire alerts are found. Together, these two groups account for more than 50 percent of the fires across all concessions.
- It will be important for government agencies to conduct further investigations and verify the location and direct causes of the fires. Satellite data can show the location of the fires, but does not indicate how they started or spread. It is also in the public interest to have up-to-date and publicly available concession data.
Better management of forest resources is one of the keys to preventing future fires. By improving near-real-time detection of change, government agencies, companies, and communities can coordinate and respond quickly to fire events. Satellite mapping and data tools—such as WRI’s Forest Cover Analyzer—can help to visualize forest clearing, fires, and concession data. Later this year, WRI and its partners will be launching Global Forest Watch 2.0 to help better understand forest clearing at a global scale.
With better data, governments and companies in Indonesia can make better decisions—and move towards a future with clearer skies.