Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

Michel Foucault (1984, 262) refers to biopower as “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.” Because the target of biopower is the life of the entire population, these diverse techniques aim to limit the life of a particular population that was considered “different” or “abnormal,” and it “allowed them to die” in order to make society “live” (Foucault 2003, 214).

I draw from Foucault's concept of biopower to show in this essay how remote sensing is a device used to rationalize action against rural communities in the name of saving the planet. When remote sensing technologies become the grounds for intervention in smallholder lives, it intensifies inequality and injustice.

Indonesian officials and environmental activists rely on modern technology such as remote sensing to fight forest fires. The technology has become increasingly popular as access to remote sensing to generate fire hotspot maps has increased, allowing officials to develop the surveillance base from these satellite detectable fire hotspots.

In order to address forest fire problems, forest policy reform and consistent implementation of law enforcement is needed, but these are difficult to achieve in Indonesia. As a result, forest fire hotspots from satellite technology become an important tool for policing forest land users. This policing activity has not only targeted the industrial and large-scale plantations, but has recently also targeted the rural population despite their long history of integrating fire with farming systems.

Traditional fire controlled system (sekat bakar) in C. Kalimantan. Photo by Suraya A. Afiff.

The first devastating fire took place in 1982–1983, when El Niño drought-related fires destroyed over three million hectares of logged forest areas in East Kalimantan. Despite the 1995 government regulation that banned the utilization of fire for large-scale land clearing, many concessions still rely on the practice because it is the cheapest technique to clear large tracts of land to established industrial forest or oil palm plantations. Law enforcement is ineffective because of collusion between government officials and business actors in the plantation and forestry sectors.

After the 1980s, the next worst fires were in 1997 and 1998, as three crises occurred simultaneously. Beside the catastrophic forest fires, Indonesia had a financial crisis that led Suharto, a former army general who was in power for over thirty years, to resign in 1998. However, forest fires intensified in the subsequent years during the so-called Reformation era. It spread to many regions because of the increase of concession permits for extractive industry. Sumatra and Kalimantan are the two central forest fires regions where forest conversion to oil palm plantations has been extensive.

During the 1997/1998 fires, some officials collaborated with environmental activists in using remote sensing technology and geographic information systems (GIS) to address forest fires. In their findings, they could detect a considerable number of forest fire hotspots found inside the industrial concession areas. This work shaped the way discourse about the usual suspects officials blame for causing forest fires in Indonesia. There is now a widely accepted belief about industrial plantation development as the major cause of forest fires. This development has replaced the previous scholars’ and officials’ belief in the major role of swidden slash-and-burn smallholder agriculturalists in the forest fire problem (Harwell 2000).

After the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Bali in 2007, government interest to deal with the forest fires problem gained new momentum. The promise of US$1 billion in funding from Norway is the reason for the Indonesian government’s increasing interest in using remote sensing technology as a tool to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and peatland fires. The recent emphasis on the use of remote sensing technology for forest fire surveillance to save the planet has caused unintended consequences.

One day in November 2019, the local police arrested Gusti Maulidin (age sixty-three) and Sarwani (age fifty), two Dayak men from a small village in Central Kalimantan. They did not know that their regular farming practice, which involved using fire to clear lands, had caused them trouble that day. The police arrested them based on the unproven allegation that the fire from these men’s fields was out of control and had spread to nearby areas, causing the forest to burn.

Maulidin and Sarwani did not dispute that they had cleared the land using fire, but they denied the police allegation that the fires in their fields were the major cause of the forest fires. They claimed they burned carefully. They applied a fire controlled system (sekat bakar) to ensure the fires did not spread uncontrolled. The police based the arrest of these two men on the information gathered from the forest fire hotspots produced by the national remote sensing monitoring board, which required the local police to follow up. According to the officers who investigated the case, the location of the fire hotspots were in Maulidin and Sarwani’s burned fields. The sentence could be up to one year plus a fifty million rupiah fine (approximately US$3,400) or an extension of three months in jail.

For Dayak peoples in Kalimantan, fire is an essential tool for clearing the land during the preparation of planting dry-land paddy rice fields. My interlocutors told me that “[their] paddy rice won’t grow if [they] did not burn the land . . . before [they] do the planting” (Accioli and Afiff 2018, 256). In the peatland areas in Central Kalimantan, local Indigenous populations depend on fire for their livelihood activities such as clearing land for hunting, fishing, or clearing the canal to ease transportation access to collect forest resources. These local smallholders have very few alternatives other than using fire in their farming activities. For years, many government and conservationists’ projects have carried out strategies to stop and alter the villagers’ behavior from practicing slash and burn. But so far successes have been quite limited.

Using remote sensing as biopower technology might not address the problem. A recent study by Goldstein et al. (2020) shows it would be misleading to only focus on detecting fire hotspots as the main strategy to address the fire problem in Central Kalimantan peatlands. They argue local people’s use of fire in farming might not necessarily lead to catastrophic forest fires as long as this surface fire is not making a transition into subsurface soil-based fires.

Fire controlled system (sekat bakar) in C. Kalimantan. Photo by Suraya A. Afiff.


Acciaioli, Greg, and Suraya Afiff. 2018. “Neoliberal Conservation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.” Indonesia and the Malay World 46, no. 136: 241–62.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon.

———. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.

Goldstein, Jenny E., Laura Graham, Sofyan Ansori, Yenni Vetrita, Andri Thomas, Grahame Applegate, Andrew P. Vayda, Bambang H. Saharjo, and Mark A. Cochrane. 2020. “Beyond Slash-and-Burn: The Roles of Human Activities, Altered Hydrology and Fuels in Peat Fires in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 41, no. 2: 190–208.

Harwell, Emily. 2000. “Remote Sensibilities: Discourses of Technology and the Making of Indonesia’s Natural Disaster.” Development and Change 31, no. 1: 307–40.