Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-INDONESIA: Crackdown Needed to Stop Forest Fires

Kafil Yamin

JAKARTA, Aug 1 2000 (IPS) - They may have become an annual ritual, but Indonesia’s forest fires are by no means welcome events in this country – as well as in neighbouring nations that often ended up choking in the resulting thick smoke.

Yet while Indonesian authorities usually join in the yearly fuming over the fires, activists say the government must come down harder on the forest concessionaires that deliberately start the blazes to clear land for replanting.

Even Deputy Governor Rustam Abrus of Riau province in western Indonesia, one of the areas most affected by the annual infernos, is now demanding that the Forest and Plantation Ministry revoke the operating permits of the companies responsible for the fires.

“Most of the haze now afflicting the province is a result of fires set by companies,” he says.

Darminto Soetano, head of the Forestry Ministry’s provincial office in Riau, admits that during the first half of July alone, there have already been 340 fires in 71 areas belonging to forestry and plantation firms.

This is despite a 1998 warning sent by the government to forest concessionaires, after fires in Indonesia that year resulted in heavy smoke that blanketed the region for months.

That severe haze episode caused extensive health effects on people, especially the elderly and children, and interfered with air traffic in Indonesia, as well as in Malaysia, Singapore and even Thailand.

Lawsuits have also been filed against forest concessionaires accused of starting the fires. But activists note that no single company has been punished yet, a fact that they say has emboldened firms to keep on using fires to clear land.

There were about 16 cases filed in connection with the 1997 and 1998 blazes, while six lawsuits reached the court this year for similar offences.

Barlin, an official at the environmental Office of West Kalimantan north of Jakarta, says that while there have been some suits filed against “stubborn” businessmen for “burning practices”, there have been no convictions so far.

“It further weakens the process of law enforcement,” he says.

Hapsoro, a member of the forest monitoring group Telapak Indonesia, also says that such suits often result only in out-of- court deals.

This year, the now familiar haze began to be noticed early in July, with south-east winds spreading it from forest fires in Aceh, Barumun (North Sumatra) and Riau in western Indonesia.

The Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) has also said that since Jul. 18, it has detected 14 “fire hot spots” in central Barumun, South Tapanuli, Labuhan Batu and North Tapanuli.

Although the haze is less than that experienced by many areas and nearby countries in 1997 and 1998, the present smoke has already sparked anger in Malaysia.

There, residents in the capital Kuala Lumpur and in several towns in Selangor, Perak, Penang and Kedah states wound up teary eyed and coughing recently because of the “imported” pollution.

Irham Buana of the Legal Aid Institute in Medan, North Sumatra, says that the fires have already destroyed around 20,000 hectares of forest in Barumun Tengah.

Some forestry officials say that now at least, there are measures in place to prevent the fires from spreading to other areas. In the last two years, the Forestry Ministry has been busy setting up fire prevention task forces throughout the country.

West Kalimantan forestry office head Arman Malalongan also says, “All government institutions here have been well prepared for the likely recurrence of fire.”

In addition, the Forestry Ministry has required all forest concessionaires to have their own fire prevention task forces.

But all these have proved ineffective in stopping the fires from spreading, largely because of lack of personnel and reliable equipment.

Activists also point out that what officials mean by “being ready” is having people in the risky areas know how to make early warning calls whenever they spot fires, where to go and get the necessary tools and how to work together to put them out.

“Even though such practice is useful, it won’t work out,” says Hapsoro. “That is more (appropriate) for a fire in a village.”

Besides, he adds, forestry personnel and village residents are equipped “only with manual tools, such as brooms for striking the flames, plastic buckets for pouring the water and hand extinguishers”.

Hapsoro says that to fight forest fires, communities need joint action and coordination among large institutions, plus proper technology. But he adds that even wealthy concessionaires have failed to equip their fire task forces appropriately.

One fire-extinguishing demonstration held by the major forest concessionaire Hutan Musi Persada had fire fighters sending emergency calls by striking sticks of bamboo, and then forming rows through which buckets of water for putting out the fire were passed by hand.

“This backward method has not changed until now,” says Hapsoro, who is puzzled by the poor facilities of wealthy forestry firms.

He also remarks that since most of the fires are caused by the concessions, these companies should put more effort and money in preventing the blazes from affecting other areas, if they really cannot think of other alternatives to clear the land.

Then again, all the 421 forest concessionaires now occupying some 52 million hectares of forest in Indonesia are actually required to set aside 10 to 30 dollars for every cubic metre of timber they produce. The money goes to a fund earmarked for reforestation.

But activists say this so-called ‘reforestation fund’, which is supposed to be under the care of the Forestry Ministry, has been used mostly other purposes such as the production of N-2130 aircraft, the construction of luxurious office buildings and the expansion of the industrial sector.

Meanwhile, forestry officials have been seeking foreign assistance to finance fire prevention drives.

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