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Forest fire turns lush Indonesian rain forest into a wasteland

The implications of last year's devastating forest fire in Indonesia are only now becoming known. The fire in East Kalimantan Province on what was once the island of Borneo, burned for more than three months. It destroyed about 31/2 million hectares of lush tropical rain forest - an area about equal to one-fifth the size of West Germany.

Even now, a year after the fire died out, coal and peat deposits beneath the forest floor are still burning. It is estimated that nearly $1.5 billion worth of tropical hardwood timber concessions have been destroyed. By the most conservative estimates it will take at least 70 years before any sort of regeneration can take place.

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Appearances are deceptive. Flying in a small plane over the area, one sees secondary vegetation, such as lush creeping plants and shrubs, forming a green canopy over the forest. But on the ground it's a very different story. What was once dense jungle undergrowth, with trees and plants alive with the sounds of the tropical forest, is now a burned out, dead area.

There are none of the familiar bird and animal sounds, only the creaking and splitting of wood and the occasional crash as a tree hits the forest floor. A Canadian timber man working in the area said, ''It is all very eerie in there now. The temperatures have gone up and it is like a permanent autumn.''

The exact cause of the fire will likely never be known. It could have been the result of slash-and-burn agriculture practised by the local Dayak people, or a discarded cigarette, or maybe even spontaneous combustion.

But it was the longest drought in living memory that caused the fire to grow and engulf such a large area. The tropical rain forest is usually a swampy area with trees literally spreading their roots across the water to form the forest floor. But after more than six months without rain, the forest had completely dried out by early last year. Mighty rivers in the area became only trickles of water. Once started, the fire smouldered on and on. Local residents say that for two months the sun appeared only as a dim yellow disc at midday.

The effects of smoke were felt as far away as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur more than 1,000 miles distant. Most local airplane flights had to be stopped. Even Surabaya airport, 400 miles south on the island of Java, was forced to close for a time. The authorities, it seems, could do little but stand and watch. Although Indonesia has one of the world's biggest forest areas, it has no firefighting equipment.

Local people complain that at the time, the national government in Jakarta paid little attention and the only action the local government could take was to ask people to go to the mosque to pray for rain.

The loss of valuable timber was not the fire's only result. Because of the destruction of wildlife, including birds, there has been a proliferation in the number of insects, some of which are attacking trees well outside the fire zone, boring into the wood, eventually killing them and making them useless for commercial purposes.Ecologists point out that valuable seed stocks have also been lost and that because of the destruction of peat deposits, there is now a danger of flash flooding in the area. An ecologist said the effects of the fire are bound to spread well beyond the area destroyed, affecting vegetation, climate, and wildlife. ''The tropical rain forest is very deceptive in all its lushness. In fact, it is an extremely delicate ecosystem and like loosing an arm , the rest of the body is bound to be affected,'' he said.

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