The burning of Borneo's rainforest

The home of Borneo´s critically endangered orangutan continues to be engulfed in flames each year, due to widespread use of slash and burn techniques for agricultural conversion of tropical rainforest. In 2015 more than 125,000 dry-season fires swept across the islands of Indonesia, exacerbated by El Niño and climate change, burning a rainforest area the size of Wales. On Borneo alone more than 800,000 Ha of pristine rainforests was lost in the flames. 


Thick smog hanging in the air is a common thing on the island of Borneo in the dry season from May to October. In 2015, 19 people died, more than 500,000 people suffered haze-related respiratory problems, the Indonesian economy lost 16 billion US dollars, and 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2 was emitted. The reason for this hazard: the burning of the Indonesian rainforest.

A traditional practice

Forest fires are a common way to clear land in the tropical regions across the world. By burning the forest, the nutrients stored in the vegetation are released, (thereby creating a highly fertile soil), competitive and unwanted plant species are eliminated, and potential diseases are reduced. This method has been used for centuries as a traditional way of preparing the land for agricultural production, also known as the “slash and burn” technique. After the burned land has been used for agriculture, farmers usually leaves the land fallow, allowing it to regenerate, while moving on to another piece of land. As rainforest used to be abundant and population numbers low this was the most sustainable land-use practice.

Burning rainforest to the ground

Today, as large areas of rainforest have already been cleared, and peatlands have been drained, the rainforest is losing its moisture, becoming increasingly vulnerable to man-made fires.  The large-scale industries of palm oil, pulpwood and rubber continue to use fire, even though being illegal, as the most common method to clear rainforest for the establishment of plantations. The numerous fires on degraded lands often spin out of control, creating devastating ecological consequences (as seen in 2015), in addition to providing opportunistic companies with a convenient excuse to overtake more precious land.

The re-occurring climatic event El Niño

In the fall of 2015, the rainforest of Indonesia was particularly sensitive to the spreading of fires, due to the climatic event El Niño. El Niño occurs every two to six years, when the warm surface waters at the coast off South America retain their positions, instead of their normal movement towards Australia and Indonesia. As a result, the South American coast receives intense rainfall, whereas Indonesia and the pacific region experience heavily reduced rainfall, drying up vegetation, making fires spread more easily.

  • 1997-98 El Niño

During the years of 1997 and 1998 Indonesia experienced the worse El Niño ever recorded. Around 10 million ha of forest was damaged by fire and up to 5 million ha were completely burned, emitting more than 1 billion tons of CO2 (making Indonesia one of the largest carbon polluters in the world). Even though El Niño is a natural event, at least 80 % of the fires can be attributed to land clearing carried out by logging and plantation firms. It is estimated that one third of the orangutan population died as a consequence of the El Niño fires of 1997-98. 

  • 2015-16 El Niño

It the fall of 2015 more than 125,000 fires swept across Indonesia, emitting more CO2 per day than the entire U.S economy on the worst days. More than half of the fires occurred on the carbon-rich peatlands, making the total emission reaching around 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2 (exceeding the annual emission of Russia). On Borneo alone more than 800,000 Ha of pristine rainforests (an area the size of Cyprus) was lost in the flames. How many orangutan lives there were lost in fires is still unknown, but our Indonesian partner, BOS Foundation, worked day and night to rescue orangutans from the life-threatening fires, relocating nearly 100 individuals.

Read more about the climate change affects the orangutans' habitat here >>

How can you help?

Save the Orangutan deployed fire-squads during the catastrophic fire event of 2015, and continue our rescuing efforts to save orangutans caught in the aftermaths of the fires, and restore the destroyed rainforest. Read here how you can help make a difference by supporting Save the Orangutans rainforest program SOS Borneo. 


Volunteer fire squads

Save the Orangutan supports the organisation of volunteer fire squads among the indigenous people of Borneo. Funds from the Danish association CISU - Civil Society in Development makes it possible to improve the equipment of the squads. Read more >>

Facts about the 2015 El Niño consequences for Indonesia:

Number of fires: Over 127,000

Human deaths: 19 people

BOS Foundation translocation of orangutans: 89 orangutans

Number of haze-related respiratory illnesses: 500,000 incidents

Total population affected: 40 million people

Total area burned: 2,600,000 Ha (size of Wales)

Total CO2 emissions: 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2

Total economic cost: 16,000,000,000 US dollars

Read more about the 2015 El Niño here >>