Indonesia’s 2019 wildfires caused nearly twice as much damage as the Indonesian government reported, researchers write in the scientific journal Earth System Science Data. Not 1.6 million hectares, but 3.1 million hectares of forest and rainforest were lost in the fires. That is an area the size of Belgium.

New technology was used in the research, which allowed the monitoring of smaller fires as well. Despite the forest fires, deforestation in Indonesia has been decreasing in the last four years, the researchers write.

The forest fires of 2019, which mainly raged in Sumatra and Borneo, are among the worst in recent decades. The air was heavily polluted with smog.

Over the province of Jambi the sky turned blood red for a while:

Often fires are started illegally by small farmers and plantation owners who want to clear land for agriculture. Indonesian authorities detained nearly 200 people in 2019 in connection with the fires.

Research thwarted

The investigation into the forest fires is sensitive in Indonesia. One of the researchers, French ecologist David Gaveau, had to leave the country in 2020 after releasing the first results of the study. His house was also searched. According to the Indonesian authorities, his deportation is related to visa problems.

According to Gaveau, the eviction is a direct result of the investigation:

Environmental organizations and climate scientists have been asking the Indonesian government for more transparency about the forest fires in the country for some time. That is also to the advantage of the country itself, according to Greenpeace Indonesia, because of access to funds to combat deforestation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo previously said a permanent solution must be found to the annual forest fires. Arsonists face up to 15 years in prison, but environmental groups say enforcement is inadequate.

Both Indonesian media and the British news agency Reuters have asked the Indonesian government for a response to the recent investigation, but so far have not received one.


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