Photo Essay – Borneo Land Conversion & Biomass Fires

Prompted by recent media interest in biomass burning and related Tweets here is a short photo essay on land cover conversion and fire in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, Indonesia. The photos are not current and date from 2004, highlighting that these issues are not new. Justifiable outrage about fires in the Amazon and Indonesia in 2019 belie the fact that land cover conversion, both legal and illegal, is an ongoing issue that has been happening year after year. If you are shocked by what is happening in 2019 just imagine the cumulative impacts on the natural environment over decades.

Palanka Raya, Sept 2004
Palanka Raya, Sept 2019 (Straights Times)

Most urban residents experience the impact of fires as a choking haze that can literally block out the sun. Fires occur for many reasons and may be started by people, either on purpose or by accident, or in some cases they may occur naturally. Obviously they are prone to take hold when conditions are dry rather than wet and be more intense when there is a large fuel load to burn. The causes and impacts are multiple and all relate to how land is managed. Here are a few examples, all from areas that were previous forested.

Shifting Agriculture

Fire has been used as a land management tool, well for a very long time. One purpose of using fire is to clear land for slash-and-burn agriculture where an area is cleared and cultivated for a few years and then allowed to regrow. This works as part of an extensive land use system but breaks down if population density becomes too high and the regrowing period is too short.

Land being cleared for slash and burn agriculture in South Kalimantan, 2004.

Some degraded areas are restored and replanted but shifting agriculture may return before the area has fully regenerated. Nearby hill slopes were devoid of both trees and soil.

Slash and burn agriculture in the foreground in an area of Restoration Forest, ensuring the forest is not actually restored. South Kalimantan 2004.
The uncontrolled spread of fires to areas with steep slopes may result in soil erosion reducing the ability of trees to regrow.


Natural forests are valuable because they contain, amongst other things, trees, and trees mean logs and there is a worldwide market for logs. Logging may take place illegally as part of free-for-all illegal logging, unsustainable forestry or planned sustainable forest management (SFM). SFM can only be achieved with well defined laws and standards, management planning, regulation and traceability. It also means having strong institutions. If corruption is allowed to thrive then so does illegal logging.

Log extraction, Central Kalimantan 2004

If legal logging concessions are not economic they will go bust leaving illegal loggers to move in and take what they want, either in a clandestine way or quite openly if there is not legal enforcement.

Illegal logging camp operating in plain sight, complete with satellite dish, Central Kalimantan 2004

Illegal logging camps result in illegal untraceable logs, lots of flammable biomass trash, habitat loss and degradation of the forest. Degraded forest becomes more prone to fire.

Illegal logs, Central Kalimantan 2004

Illegal logging also means the loss of habitat for both flora and fauna. The plight of orangoutangs who have lost their habitat is increasingly reported.

Annual Land Clearance

Having converted forest into another land use, in this case a small rubber plantation, fire may be used to keep down herbaceous ground vegetation by burning it every year. This prevents seedlings reestablishing themselves. Fire may not respect boundaries and this small grass fire flared, crossing the road in moments.

Grass fire set on purpose to clear undergrowth in a small rubber plantation.

Once started even small fires may spread out of control to neighbouring areas.

Leaping across the road the small fire spreads to neighbouring land illustrating the fickle nature of fire.

Land cleared of forests may be entirely abandoned. Whilst abandoned land may revert to forest it may also be burned year after years, hastening its conversion to grassland.


Kalimantan in rich in coal resources. Not only may land be cleared with fire to expose and extract coal (as here) but the coal may also start to smoulder and self-combust on exposure to the air. It may not need much encouragement to start burning in-situ and putting out coal fires is a difficult verging impossible task that may take years, or even be impossible, to complete.

Land cleared for coal mining with coal starting to combust and smoulder on exposure to the air. Forest fires may also start combustion of shallow coal seams.

Coal is extracted down river by tugs pulling huge river-barges. The barges are so large they are readily seen from space.

Google image of a coal barge in Kalimantan, 2018, passing logs ready for transportation down river.
Coal barges extracting coal downstream in Kalimantan, 2004.

Industrial Plantations

Large areas of cleared and drained swamp forest in South Kalimantan have been converted to oil palm production. Each oblong block in the image below is 1 kilometre across and has up to 3,000 oil palm trees. Huge areas have been converted from swamp into oil palm production, primarily to produce palm-oil which is widely used in processed food production and cosmetics. In these areas the swamp has been drained (straight black lines), the forest has been cut, the trees removed, trash burned and thousands of trees of a single species planted. Areas not planted for oil palm desiccate and burn frequently. The purple areas are burn scars and small fire fronts are visible from their smoke plumes. Formerly this area was probably prime orangutang habitat.

ESA Sentinel-2 satellite image of oil palm plantations in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image acquired 17/8/2018.

Conversion of diverse forests into mono-cultures of oil palm and grass changes the ecology which can lead to exceptional swarms of locusts which may feed on oil palm.

Locust swarm, Kalimantan 2004. Locusts can decimate crops and may feed on oil palm. Being in a swarm is deeply unpleasant.
Gregarious locust, Kalimantan 2004.

Miss-Planned Agriculture

The Mega Rice Project in Kalimantan drained a huge area (the target was one million hectares) of peat swamp for rice production and was then abandoned because of poor conception, planning and implementation. The draining and desiccation of the peat exposes it to fire risk. These soils are difficult to work and fire may be used to to clear them for cultivation purposes by small holder farmers. Much like coal, once peat has caught fire it is difficult to extinguish and may smoulder for weeks or months releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Combined with the removal of tree cover and extensive habitat loss the Mega Rice Project was and continues to be an environmental disaster. The conservation and restoration of peat swamps is a priority in combating climate change.

Abandoned drainage channel through a peat swamp area, Central Kalimantan 2004. These drainage canals stretch for tens of kilometres across the flat landscape, constantly draining the land ensuring that the peat remains fire prone. Cf satellite image above.

Poor water management and desiccation of the soil results in acidification of the water leading to low productivity and health problems for those living in the area. During the Mega Rice Project farmers were moved from other locations in Indonesia to populate the former swamps. The story of the transmigration is a little known human tragedy heaped on the environmental and wildlife disaster.

Small holder rice farmer living next to acidified drainage channel, Central Kalimantan, 2004.


The fire, haze and related environmental problems being experienced in Kalimantan in 2004 have not gone away. In 2019 the fires are raging again. We need to collectively stop making stupid land use mistakes and enforce environmental laws. The natural environment can’t afford another 15 years of business as usual.

A series of images in 2019 is published in the Guardian Newspaper.

“A Borneo orangutan stands on a riverbank on Salat Island, on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, as haze from the forest fires blankets the area.”
Photograph: Fully Handoko/EPA