Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-INDONESIA: Curbing Forest Fires Needs Major Overhaul

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jul 19 2000 (IPS) - Indonesia’s forestry sector requires a major overhaul, including immediate moratoriums on new timber and plantation concessions and on transmigration, to stop the recurrence of forest fires that plague South-east Asia, says a new report released Wednesday.

Smoke from a particularly serious episode of forest fires fouled the air over much of peninsular South-east Asia in 1997-98, adds the report. Just recently, haze from similar fires has been again reported in part of the region.

The 75-page report, ‘Trial by Fire: Forest Fires and Forestry Policy in Indonesia’s Era of Crisis and Reform’, amounts to a searing indictment of the stewardship of the New Order regime under ousted Gen. Suharto and a call for sweeping measures to prevent further destruction.

“Incremental and technocratic” reforms of the kind urged by the international community during Suharto’s reign are no longer enough, warns the report, issued by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), and two Indonesian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the national chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature and Telepak Indonesia Foundation.

It argues that Suharto’s ouster in May 1998 offers “an unprecedented window of opportunity” for radical reform.

“The solution lies not so much in strengthening technical capacities for fire prediction, prevention and mitigation as in a major restructuring of relationships between the state, the private sector, and the millions of forest-dependent peoples living in and on the fringes of the nation’s forestlands,” the report asserts.

Among other measures, the report calls for a moratorium on new concessions for oil palm, timber and other plantations until a national inventory of state forestlands can be completed; a five- year moratorium on resettlement schemes; much stronger penalties against clearing plantations with fire; and clear legal protection for the remaining forested areas in Indonesia.

The report takes at its starting point the devastating fires of 1997-98, which the report called “an unprecedented human and ecological disaster”, that spread smoke over tens of thousands of square kilometers, exposing some 20 million people in the region to harmful pollutants.

Some 10 million hectares of forestland were burned, including parts of 17 “protected” areas, in what the report calls “just the latest symptom of a destructive system of forest resource management” carried out under Suharto.

The conditions for these fires were largely created by the prolonged droughts caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, according to the report.

But it says the fires themselves were mostly set deliberately by plantation companies and agribusiness – often owned by Suharto’s cronies – “eager to clear forest land as rapidly and cheaply as possible,” according to the report.

These private interests enjoyed virtually free rein during Suharto’s rule. In those 32 years, Indonesia lost at least 40 million hectares of forests, roughly equivalent to the combined size of Germany and the Netherlands, the report explains.

“Indonesian forest policies have provided powerful legal incentives for ‘cut-and-run’ resource extraction and have failed to create effective mechanisms for enforcing even minimum standards of forest resource stewardship,” the report says.

Besides timber concessions, big government projects, such as the failed attempt to convert one million hectares of peat swamp forests to rice fields, had ruinous effects, as did the replacement of forestland with palm-oil plantations and illegal logging, most of it by the same companies which also received government concessions.

The same policies which permitted a small elite to plunder the forests also denied local and indigenous communities access to those resources, let alone any say in their management or exploitation.

The result was persistent human-rights abuse by government security forces that effectively became “a kind of private army” used to repress any popular resistance.

Those same communities should have a much greater say in forest management, according to the report.

It warns that companies and interests which destroyed the forests under Suharto – and are continuing to do so, as shown by the number of fires set since last Spring – remain powerful obstacles to any major reforms.

Their resistance will require concerted action by international agencies, bilateral donors, international and local NGOs and communities – and by the new elected government – in implementing a major overhaul of the current system, according to the report.

Such an overhaul must go far beyond the largely technical and managerial advice and assistance, such as acquisition of modern fire-fighting equipment, given by the international community during the 1997-98 fires.

“While these measures are certainly necessary, they will have only marginal effects unless the underlying political economy of forest resource use and management is significantly restructured,” the report warns.

Indeed they could even become an obstacle to meaningful change to the extent they divert attention “from the broader forest- policy issues” which are being debated by local NGOs and environmentalists today, the report states.

Given the present state of the Indonesian economy, the international community has greater leverage “to demand – not just suggest – reforms.”

A necessary first step is to determine precisely what remains of state forestlands, to ensure their legal protection against any conversion to other uses, and to stabilise key protected areas, such as national parks.

Once an inventory is completed, the rights of indigenous and forest-dependent local communities – a population of at least 30 million people, according to the World Bank – must be recognised and enforced, the report says.

It cites the Bank’s own recommendations that these communities must fully involved in the “management, utilisation, and actual ownership of forests and forested lands.”

Community involvement is particularly important in light of the financial crisis and its impact on the growing and “increasingly desperate” population, according to the report, which suggests that granting local communities greater access to and control over forest resources may be a “tool for the government’s political survival”.

“The key question is whether government forest policy will lead and smooth way for these changes, or will be dragged along by popular action – which is likely to turn increasingly violent  at the grassroots,” says the report’s introduction by Jonathan Lash, WRI president.

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