The fires in East Kalimantan from January this year have ravaged nearly half a million hectares of forest and farm land in the region. Compare this with last year's fires, which affected only 37,000 hectares in East Kalimantan province. Almost a fifth of the total area affected is located in Kutai National Park.
Kutai is one of Indonesia's living gems. Encompassing some 198,000 hectares, it houses extensive areas of lowland tropical forest, which is a threatened ecosystem on the island. As more and more of these forest systems are lost to logging, mining and agricultural development, the significance of protecting Kutai increases.
The park is home to a number of endangered primates, including the proboscis monkey and orangutan. Kutai's magic has already experienced a long history of damage. Its borders have shrunk several times to accommodate the demands of industry, and there is even development inside those borders. It is a crying shame to see this treasure once again come under attack, this time from 'nature'.
The recent fires in East Kalimantan have damaged up to 77,700 hectares of Kutai. More than a third of the park has been scorched. Since its inception, Kutai's pristine land area has gradually been chipped away under pressure from industry to develop the area. The actual area of undisturbed national park is a lot less than is reported on paper, perhaps only half the officially stated figure.
Out of the eight conservation areas in East Kalimantan (all, incidentally, hit by fire), Kutai is the only national park. In theory this status should provide a higher degree of protection than, say, a nature reserve. If only the theory was true!
The area known today as Kutai was first proposed as a two million hectare reserve in 1932. But it has experienced no less than five border revisions. Compromises have been made repeatedly to accommodate the demands from forestry, oil and natural gas industries to exploit sections of the park.
Border revisions have had a severe impact on the park. Up to half of the park has already been damaged by logging, industrial and settlement expansion, and now by the fires. In some cases areas have been excised, and after being logged, drilled or mined, reinstated into the park in a damaged state.
The park is bordered by sea on the eastern side. Elsewhere it is completely enclosed by no less than three logging concessions, plus illegal timber operations, two mining operations and two natural gas industries. Besides this, the state-owned oil company Pertamina has a concession area which covers the whole of the park. Its employee complex is located in the eastern section of the park. Over a hundred oil drills are currently operating in the park.
A public road cuts through the eastern section from Bontang in the east to Sangatta in the north. This section is the most degraded by earlier logging and mining operations, and has also been extensively cleared through human settlement.
I visited the park in January this year. I was not surprised to notice that most of the fires occurred close to this road. Every day twenty or so buses pass through the park, full of passengers going to or from Sangatta. It is easy to see these fires were most likely caused by human negligence.
Several fires broke out in the nucleus zone of the park. From the point of view of biodiversity and research, this is the most important area. Up till now it had remained largely undisturbed by humans.
Kutai's managers have a lot to contend with. The fires are just another chapter in a long history of problems. Just one among them is an illegal timber operation controlled by Indonesian armed forces members at Menamang, on the southwest side of the park.
And then there are the ever-expanding fish and prawn ponds on the east coast. These tambak operations as they are called in Indonesian are destroying large tracts of mangrove forest, the feeding grounds of the endemic and rare proboscis monkey.
Continual pressure from the oil, coal, forestry, plantation, fertiliser and other companies on the outskirts is also a problem. Their mere presence has drawn large numbers of people into the area and into the park. The absence of buffer zones between the industrial timber plantations and the park means there is no adequate protection, and park boundaries have become unclear.
Since the fires broke out there has been a noticeable increase in illegal logging. Eighty nine cubic metres of tropical hardwoods have been logged since January 1998, according to Kutai's management. Illegal trade in wildlife such as orangutan is also on the increase, as villagers short on food seek other means to help prop up their income.
Homeless orangutans are often taken to the Wanariset rehabilitation centre, on the Balikpapan Road in East Kalimantan. Meanwhile their habitat continues to be destroyed, making their chances of survival increasingly slim. Kutai is the only extensive area of protected forest in East Kalimantan. It is virtually the only place where the endangered Eastern race of this great ape can be effectively protected and continue to multiply.
Oil and coal
Another controversial issue is oil. In 1977 Pertamina was granted permission to exploit oil reserves within the area, even though it had long been set aside for conservation. At the time it was a wildlife reserve, where mining is permitted. Indonesian law strictly bans all commercial mining activities in national parks. Arguing that the Pertamina agreement was made before the area was converted to a national park in 1982, the government allowed the company to retain its contract. In perpetuity!
In 1997 Kutai came under threat from a proposed coal mining operation by a company called Dwipangga Sakti Prima. The Department of Mines and Energy granted a licence to the company to exploit 100,000 hectares within the park. Perhaps the fact that it was owned by President Suharto's youngest daughter Mamiek had something to do with this contravention of the law.
A local nature lovers group in Samarinda found out about the plan, and they publicised it in regional newspapers. The story was then taken up by a number of high profile non-government organisations in Jakarta. With success - the project was canned.
In 1996-97 I conducted research on ways to apply an integrated conservation and development approach to Kutai's management. This involved including all stakeholders in the planning process. Everyone from local villagers to big business need to work together towards a long-term plan.
The park management team are struggling with a legacy of threats. The fires in Kutai are yet one more test among many. Can they rise to the challenge of a new approach? Even more seriously, will there be an area left worth protecting?
Alex Ryan is an honours student in Indonesian at University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She travels frequently to East Kalimantan.