Sumatra’s smoking – but who is to blame?

Posted on Jul 11, 2013 in News | 2 comments

Forest fires are a common occurrence at this time of year in Northern Sumatra and regions including Riau and Jambi.  This year, extreme wind patterns spread a thick haze from the fires that caused the PSI (pollution) levels in Singapore to rise to record breaking hazardous levels.  

An article that featured in Mongabay has detailed the NASA technology that has mapped the areas in Sumatra where fires are burning.  This data has revealed that a majority of fires are concentrated in deforested peatlands and scrub, rather than protected forests.

“The fires are burning in plantation forests where they may have been set purposely in rotation as a method of boosting crop production on oil palm plantations and timber plantations – a practice known as swidden – or slash-and-burn agriculture,” writes CIFOR’s Julie Mollins in a blog post.

Other speculation pointed the blame at illegal forest fires, set up by small and large logging, pulp and oil palm businesses to clear land. Regardless of who or what is to blame, the fires would not have become such a huge global issue had it not caused such huge health issues to neighbouring Singapore.

There has been much blame between the respective governments.  Singapore officials demanded apologies and explanations, while an Indonesian Government spokesman publicly detailed the businesses from Singapore that owned the land in the burning regions.

Sumatra is home to an estimated 300 tigers, already critically endangered due to poaching & shrinking habitat.  Laws preventing fires for agricultural use are poorly enforced for a variety of reasons, more stringent measures and stronger penalties need to be put in place in order to protect this vital habitat and the Sumatran tiger.


  1. There is an apparent error in this article: ‘swidden’ or ‘slash and burn agriculture’ or ‘shifting cultivation’ refers to smallholder agriculture of a few hectares, often carried out sustainably. It does NOT refer to the reckless use of fire on a large scale in para-statal plantations, which use has indeed been responsible than any other factors for the infamous forest fires that have occurred in Indonesia over the past two decades,

    • Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. That section of the article was a quote taken from the CIFOR website. As you correctly state, during my research I found a large proportion of fires have been noted to be on land owned by large agricultural businesses from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

      Very difficult situation to comment or write about as so much speculation and blame is being thrown around. I am sending you a separate email as I would love to find out some more about your background.