Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia

In Indonesia, subsistence and industrial agriculturists set fires to expand land available to cultivate food crops and palm oil trees. Because drought conditions existed, fires blazed out of control, burning millions of acres, including rain forests. The large amounts of smoke caused by the fires covered Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries for several months. Pollutants harmed both humans and animals exposed to the smoke and interfered with trade and travel in the region.

Summary of Event

In 1997, Indonesia suffered its worst drought in a half century. The problem was exacerbated by El Niño conditions that altered normal precipitation and weather. During 1997, these conditions delayed the September monsoon season for two months. Subsistence farmers welcomed the abnormal weather pattern and burned additional land to clear it for crops. This practice was a well-established tradition for survival within Indonesian culture; however, in 1995, national leaders had banned extensive burning because previous fires had interfered with diplomacy and shipping. In 1997, commercial farmers and investors viewed the extra phase of dryness as an opportunity to earn more profits. As a result, beginning in June, immense human-caused forest fires swept through the country. Disasters;fires
Forest fires
Fires;Indonesian forests
Air pollution;smoke
[kw]Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia (June-Oct., 1997)
[kw]Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia, Indonesian (June-Oct., 1997)
[kw]Fires Devastate Southeast Asia, Indonesian Forest (June-Oct., 1997)
[kw]Southeast Asia, Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate (June-Oct., 1997)
[kw]Asia, Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast (June-Oct., 1997)
Forest fires
Fires;Indonesian forests
Air pollution;smoke
[g]Southeast Asia;June-Oct., 1997: Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia[09700]
[g]Indonesia;June-Oct., 1997: Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia[09700]
[g]Malaysia;June-Oct., 1997: Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia[09700]
[c]Disasters;June-Oct., 1997: Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia[09700]
[c]Environmental issues;June-Oct., 1997: Indonesian Forest Fires Devastate Southeast Asia[09700]
Suryohadikusumo, Djamaludin
Kusumaatmadja, Sarwono
Baharsyah, Syarifuddin
Mahathir bin Mohamad, Datuk Seri
Hafild, Emmy
Hasan, Bob

During the drought, private companies harvested hardwood timber to export. After workers cleared the harvested land by burning brush, landowners planted oil palms—creating plantations tens of thousands of acres in size—to produce oil from palm fruit to be used for a variety of goods. Several thousand acres burned weekly and rain forests in Indonesia became depleted quickly as a result of the agricultural developments. The fires raged uncontrolled—emitting toxins and pollutants in the air—in order for agribusinesses to attain larger plantations to grow more palm oil trees. Agriculture;Indonesia

Indonesian president Suharto, hoping to profit from the increase in agribusiness, approved burning licenses for business investors whom he knew. Emmy Hafild, director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, strived to stop the excessive burning. She realized the majority of Indonesian politicians were corrupt and eager to accept bribes from land investors. Hafild noted that political conditions provided minimal means to enforce the 1995 burning ban or gain control over land-hungry businesspeople.

Some officials, though, particularly Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, attempted to stop unlawful burning, providing information for the forestry ministry to strip companies of licenses. Publicly stating the fires were an overwhelming disaster, Kusumaatmadja established a group to use satellite images to watch the fires and vowed that anyone setting fires would be penalized. Despite those efforts, palm oil companies continued burning land, realizing Suharto and his supporters would not interfere.

In addition to blaming drought conditions for the fires, Indonesian officials encouraged the media to accuse subsistence farmers and foreigners—specifically Malaysians—for setting the fires and allowing them to expand unchecked. The amount of damage to the rain forest and air, however, was too great and swift for small farmers to have caused. Such rapid, fiery destruction seemed most likely attributable to industrial agribusinesses and influential plantation owners such as Bob Hasan, who owned millions of acres in Indonesia and was a close friend of Suharto. Until smoke obscured the view, satellites verified that companies were burning large areas.

Pollution caused by forest fires covers Indonesia and the Indian Ocean in 1997.


Hasan spoke publicly in support of Suharto. Citing statistics, he emphasized that 49 million hectares of Indonesia’s 143 million hectares of forest were located in national park and protected areas. Hasan also stated that 64 million hectares had stipulations that controlled harvesting to a maximum of ten trees on each hectare. He stressed that only 30 million hectares were available for agricultural usage.

Hasan emphasized that forest-related businesses employed four million workers, which aided economic stability. As a result of the fires, Indonesia established the world’s largest palm oil orchards; Hassan argued the orchards were industrial resources for workers and communities that eased impoverished conditions. Hasan stated that he encouraged reforesting land and wanted the Indonesian government to sue anyone who burned forests. Despite Hasan’s assertions, environmentalists detected that large percentages of money designated for reforestation were diverted to unrelated projects pursued by Suharto’s cronies, including Hasan.

Smoke from the Indonesian fires floated above the South China Sea to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, staining the sky gray and yellow and polluting it with noxious odors. Similar problems were not experienced in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where air currents diverted smoke elsewhere. Suharto’s advisers, in order not to alarm the president, did not report foreign complaints immediately. By September 9, Suharto asked the military to assist in enforcement of the 1995 laws; however, no fines were levied against those who continued to burn land after the October 3 deadline. After Suharto became aware of problems in nearby countries caused by the smoke, he extended a halfhearted apology in mid-September, 1997, passively saying God had created the haze.

Investors worried licenses to clear additional land might be denied and approved the immediate burning of land. Instead of handling the problem decisively, Suharto concentrated on other problems plaguing Indonesia, such as the disintegrating economy and currency devaluation. Syarifuddin Baharsyah, agriculture minister of Indonesia, stated that 173 plantations with palm oil and rubber trees were ablaze. Forestry minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo stripped nine businesses of their licenses, claiming they had not provided evidence they no longer burned land. Suryohadikusumo stopped renewal of sixty licenses, but those businesses kept clearing land.

After demonstrators protested the fires, Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad shifted his attention from economic concerns in late September, 1997, to the deployment of firefighters to Indonesia. In some urban areas, people hosed the smoke from the tops of tall buildings. Some foreign firefighters were used to fight the blazes on the ground, while others dropped water from aircraft.

In November and December, rainfall interrupted most fires, although some peat fires smoldered underneath the surface. Indonesian leaders finally created legislation in late 1997, which outlawed people from burning land from July through October. Although almost two hundred companies violated the law, none were held legally accountable. Fires resumed and expanded in February, 1998, and occurred in 1999, also. Laws against burning were ineffective partly because influential businesses emphasized that commercial agricultural money helped Indonesia’s weak economy.


Approximately 25 million acres in Indonesian forests burned in 1997. Damages related to the fires totaled $9 billion. Smoke reached several Southeast Asian countries, complicating diplomatic relations. Malaysian leaders stated that the smoke reduced that country’s tourism by 13 percent.

Approximately seventy-five million people, including forty-eight million Indonesians, were affected. Chemical toxins, especially carbons and sulfurs, entered the atmosphere and caused the air pollution index to reach dangerous levels. People suffered from fire-related ailments, included breathing and cardiovascular disorders, and wore masks and carried respirators. Many people could not work and had large medical costs because of the smoke. Wildlife—including endangered species—was significantly affected. Orangutans could not survive in burned habitats.

Ironically, despite investors’ ambitions, smoke hindered growth of trees, interrupted palm oil exportation, and depleted food supplies. The lack of sunlight impeded vegetable growth and reduced bee pollination. Soil erosion affected coral reefs and fish populations. Upset about the destruction of tropical rain forests, environmentalists worried about the fires’ long-term damage to the ecosystem, affect on weather, and contribution to global warming.

In 1997, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) discussed ways to prevent fires in Indonesia. The financial impact of the fires provoked dissension in Indonesia, and Suharto resigned in May, 1998. At the 1999 ASEAN meeting, Indonesian leaders proposed seeding clouds from airplanes to create rain. Scientific studies utilized satellites, radiometry, and remote sensors to consider ways to stop disastrous practices. Traditional farming culture in Indonesia, entrenched political response, and recurrent droughts resulted in most critics realizing obvious solutions could not be easily implemented. Disasters;fires
Forest fires
Fires;Indonesian forests
Air pollution;smoke

Further Reading

  • Aiken, S. Robert. “Runaway Fires, Smoke-Haze Pollution, and Unnatural Disasters in Indonesia.” Geographical Review 94 (January, 2004): 55-79. Examines history of twentieth century Indonesian fires and their causes, blaming humans, not drought.
  • Brauer, Michael, and Jamal Hisham-Hashim. “Fires in Indonesia: Crisis and Reaction.” Environmental Science and Technology 32 (September 1, 1998): 404A-407A. Health professionals discuss hazardous particles in air from the fires, providing graphs and satellite images.
  • Eaton, Peter, and Miroslav Radojević, eds. Forest Fires and Regional Haze in Southeast Asia. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science, 2001. Exploration of the fires’ economic, medical, climatic, and political factors by authors located in Asia who experienced the Indonesian fires’ impacts.
  • Jim, C. Y. “The Forest Fires in Indonesia 1997-98: Possible Causes and Pervasive Consequences.” Geography 84 (July, 1999): 251-260. A Hong Kong scholar focuses on biodiversity, emphasizing the protection of wildlife from fires.
  • Simons, Lewis M., and Michael Yamashita. “Indonesia’s Plague of Fire.” National Geographic, August, 1998, 100-119. Author and photographer document their experiences with the 1997 fires, discussing the perspectives of subsistence farmers, laborers, tycoons, politicians, and environmentalists.

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