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Fires in tropical forests – what is really the problem? lessons from Indonesia


Fires have attracted interest and generated alarm since the early 1980s. This concern has been particularly evident in tropical forests of Southeast Asia and the Amazon, but disastrous fires in recent summers in Australia, Europe, and the United States have drawn worldwide attention.

Concern about forest fires, and related air pollution and biodiversity impacts, led international organisations and northern countries – such as the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, and the government of Germany – to undertake fire assessments and provide technical assistance. Nongovernmental organisations, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and World Wide Fund for Nature, have also devoted increased attention to fires. Aiming at prevention of future fires, 40 fire projects and missions costing well over US$30 million have worked in Indonesia over the last 20 years. Despite the money and effort spent on them, fires continue to burn every year. It may appear to some that efforts to address the ‘fire problem’ have not been effective as fires still occur.

There remains a lack of clarity about ‘fire problems’, which has, at times, led to the adoption of policies that may have negative impacts on livelihoods, the environment, and the economy. Two ‘simple’ changes in the way fires are considered would significantly improve fire-related policies and initiatives.

  • Fires should be seen as a component of land management processes, rather than as a ‘problem’ to be prevented, suppressed, or mitigated.

  • Not all fires are the same.

These two points are discussed in the context of Southeast Asia, and particularly Indonesia, as an example of the problems and questions faced by tropical countries. We argue that efforts on fires so far have generated increased knowledge of the ’fire problem’; now, we need to capitalize on that knowledge to avoid wasting money in the future.

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Correspondence to L. Tacconi.

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Tacconi, L., Moore, P.F. & Kaimowitz, D. Fires in tropical forests – what is really the problem? lessons from Indonesia. Mitig Adapt Strat Glob Change 12, 55–66 (2007).

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  • Causes of fires
  • Deforestation
  • Economics
  • El Niño
  • Governance
  • Haze
  • Peat