The Kalimantan Lestari (KaLi) project, which launched in May 2020, is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund, and the International Climate Fund.

Led by the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, we are a consortium of UK and Indonesian universities.  Our researchers have a wide range of expertise encompassing both natural and social sciences. This multidisciplinary approach ensures we build a holistic understanding of the complex issues surrounding drought and peat fires in Indonesian Borneo.

Peatlands form in areas where waterlogged conditions prevent dead plant material from fully decomposing.  Over long periods of time, this leads to a build-up of partially decomposed organic matter (peat).  In Borneo, this peat can reach over 10 m thick, storing vast amounts of carbon and with a natural rainforest vegetation that is home to many threatened wildlife species.  In their natural, flooded state, these peatlands also help prevent wildfires and flooding, and provide numerous other benefits to local people, for example as a breeding ground for fish.

In dry years, peatland fires burn for months with huge impacts locally, regionally and globally.  The intense drought caused by the El Niño climate event in 2015 led to devastating fires, with Central Kalimantan at the epicentre.

Exposure to smoke haze generated by the peat fires of 2015 is expected to lead to an estimated 100,000 premature deaths. River fish that people rely on for food died. The cost to the Indonesian economy was estimated at $16.1Bn, and the impact of the huge carbon emissions was globally significant.

Such extreme events are predicted to increase in frequency due to global warming.

However, drought alone does not cause fire.  Wildfires are invariably ignited by people to clear land for agriculture, and for other reasons, and then burn out of control on peatland that has been drained to grow crops.

In response to these issues, in collaboration with Indonesian partners, we identified three core project objectives:

  • Gain a better understanding of the multiple drivers of drought and fires in Central Kalimantan
  • Investigate the impacts of drought and fires, and identify communities most vulnerable to these hazards
  • Identify priority actions and policies to reduce the risk of fire and implement sustainable solutions that build resilience in both communities and environment