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In Indonesia, vast peatland swamp forests are diverse ecosystems that serve as habitats for a number of threatened species and are an important source of food, water and livelihoods for local people. When left intact, the forests also act as carbon-sinks by sequestering large amounts of carbon in their soil. But these important ecosystems—and the farming livelihoods that depend on them—are frequently threatened by sweeping, uncontrolled fires. Since 2006, scientists at Columbia's International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) have been working with diverse stakeholders in the country to develop and implement an early-warning system to prevent these devastating fires. The slideshow above showcases the expertise of Columbia researchers who are working to address the challenges of peatland fires and ensure the livelihoods of farmers in the region.

In Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province, millions of hectares of forest have been logged, and peat swamps drained and converted for agriculture. Drained, degraded peatlands are at greater risk of fire, especially when rainfall is below normal. When fires spread out of control, they can have harmful effects for people and the environment and release massive amounts of smog and greenhouse gases. Fires in Indonesia made worldwide headlines in 1997, when severely dry conditions desiccated the peatlands. The fires, started primarily by workers on palm oil plantation and other large industrial estates to clear land, quickly erupted into massive blazes. In 2006, as a result of sweeping fires that devastated millions of hectares of land, the government issued a total ban on burning, but the bans made it extremely difficult for small farmers to earn a living.

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society's research showed that most fires are linked to yearly changes in climate: fires tend to get out of control mostly in years that are drier than normal, so a complete ban on fires is not always necessary. By using seasonal climate forecasts and other climate information, the IRI and its local partners, CARE Indonesia and the Institut Pertnaian Bogor, developed an early-warning tool that officials can use to determine fire risk a few months ahead of the upcoming dry season. Encouraged by this work, the governor of Central Kalimantan signed a regulation in August 2008 that allows controlled burning based on fire risk as determined by the early-warning tool.

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