Despite recurrent, catastrophic fires since 1983, Indonesia was unprepared for the extensive fires which burnt more than 5 million hectares in 1997-98. The devastation, which drew widespread international attention, arose from a complex mix of rapid land use change that was driven by private commercial interests, slash-and-burn agricultural practices, weak law enforcement and governance and perverse policy distortions. In addition to direct losses from the fire, there was incalculable damage done to human health and well-being from the thick haze which covered wide parts of Indonesia and surrounding countries. The total damage from the fires and haze suffered by Indonesia alone exceeds the damages assessed for legal liability in the Exxon Valdez and Bhopal disasters combined. The damages and losses have been estimated to be more than double the foreign aid received by Indonesia annually and equivalent to approximately 2.5% of its GNP.
The events of 1997-98 were the catalyst for Project FireFight South East Asia, the first element of a global initiative by IUCN and WWF supported by the European Commission. The project seeks to secure essential policy reform through a strategy of advocacy using synthesis and analysis of existing information and new outputs.