Tracking the Hidden Impact of Indonesia’s Forest and Peatland Fires

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Colossal forest and peatland fires in Indonesia have polluted many parts of Southeast Asia, resulting in extensive environmental destruction, increasing health problems, school closures and transport cancellations.

Pulse Lab Jakarta has been involved in research initiatives on forest and peatland fire management, as well as in understanding the social and economic impact of the phenomenon on populations in haze-prone areas in Indonesia.

Keep a sharp eye

This year NASA satellites have detected nearly 116,000 fires in Indonesia, emitting carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day at their peak. The image of southern Sumatra and Borneo above, collected by the Terra satellite on 24th September, shows the density of the haze and the scale of the challenge.

Practical monitoring tools are a prominent source of information. NASA and NOAA use high resolution satellite imagery to detect fires in near-real-time. Global Forest Watch analyses these datasets, creates useful applications and has initiated a campaign with Tomnod that allows people everywhere to support the research. These tools provide easy mediums for understanding the scale and environmental impact of the fires.

In 2014, Pulse Lab Jakarta (PLJ) conducted research in collaboration with the UN Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia (UNORCID) investigating whether social media can be used in forest and peat land fire management. The study concluded that analysis of social media could make significant contributions to emergency response activities.

Currently, PLJ is following up the research initiative with UNORCID by investigating the health impacts of haze-affected populations, as articulated by social media, and exploring how haze influences people’s movements. This research will be published in 2016.

Maximize the other nine months

In September 2015, our ethnographer went on a field trip to Pontianak, in West Kalimantan Province, and uncovered not just the social and economic impact of the haze but also the local gems that have been working on long-term solutions to the issue.

The researcher found a sense of frustration and powerlessness within and among haze-affected communities. Evidence of transport cancellations and knock on effects such as food and water undersupply and associated price increases were apparent. The study is important in that it captures the human stories behind the trends and anomalies contained within the social media data.

In May 2015, President Joko Widodo decided to extend Indonesia’s forest and peatland moratorium programme established in 2011 which demonstrates the political will from central government in securing the future of the forests and peat lands.

But top-down policy, as robust as it can be in a country the size of Indonesia, can only achieve limited success. It is critical to support the local champions in creating bottom-up responses to the crisis.


Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Australia.

Top image: Fire locations and haze in Sumatra and Kalimantan, 24/9/2015 [MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA, 2015]

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