For the first time some Indonesian government ministers have pointed the finger of blame directly at the plantation and logging companies and transmigration contractors, who burn forests and scrub to clear land for their projects. They, at least, have stopped blaming the usual scapegoats of previous years, the small-scale farmers and indigenous forest-dwellers.
In Indonesia's highly centralised power structure, ultimate responsibility goes beyond the companies however, resting with the power structure that sanctions their destructive practices. Under President Suharto's rule business interests (many of them his own family's) override all others. The raging fires and choking smog are a grim and tragic reminder of how criminally negligent this way of running a country is.
Early warnings ignored
First reports that forests were burning started appearing in the Indonesian press in July. The dry conditions had already caused a food crisis in Central Kalimantan, where supplies could no longer reach upriver communities due to low water levels in the rivers. Indonesia's Meteorological and Geophysical Agency published its forecast of a prolonged dry season as early as March. In March too, Environment Minister Sarwono was warning that forest fires and famine would be likely. The Indonesian Intelligence Agency, BIA, detected fires by satellite imagery as early as June, but failed to pass the photos on to relevant government departments. In August scientists in Geneva were warning that El Nino, the climate effect which triggers drought conditions in Indonesia every three to four years, could cause more disruption this year than in the worst previous years of 1982/83 when around three and a half million hectares of forests were destroyed in East Kalimantan alone.
Yet Sarwono and the scientists were ignored by Suharto and his government until it was too late. The timber and plantation bosses too, went about their business as usual, clearing the land in the cheapest way they knew how - by torching it.
No comment from the top man in Jakarta until well into September, when Suharto reiterated a 1995 ban on burning. The deliberate burning was by now spreading out of control to other areas. But far from stopping any further deliberately set fires, the ban had the opposite effect. According to the government's environmental protection agency, Bapedal, even more burning ensued, as companies rushed to reach their annual land clearance targets before any government clamp down took effect. (Straits Times 19/9/97) As late as mid-October, the national news agency Antara reported that 62 new fires were burning in five areas.
By September, the fires were causing a crisis of international proportions. The smoke from the fires drifted across the border into Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, choking its citizens and disrupting daily life as never before. Schools closed down in many areas as parents were advised to keep their children indoors, out of the smoke. Hospitals there and in the affected parts of Indonesia itself became crowded with people suffering from respiratory ailments. In at least three different provinces of Indonesia, scores of children collapsed after breathing in the fouled air. In the large cities, like Kuala Lumpur, the smoke mixed with exhaust fumes and industrial pollution, making the air even more hazardous to inhale. As sales of masks and bottled water soared, doctors warned of the potential long-term impacts of the toxic fumes with some predicting anl increase in cancers. Suharto's apology to neighbouring countries (which failed to apportion blame) was accepted with good grace by their governments on the surface at least, while the crisis deepened. One report said the smoke now covered an area more than half the size of continitental USA (AP 26/9). Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir declared a state of emergency in Sarawak, and at one time considered a mass evacuation. Smoke and smog was now hitting southern Thailand and the Philippines.
Lack of response
The response of the Indonesian authorities has been as slow as it has been inadequate. Eyewitness reports describe fires being left to burn unhindered, with people left to protect their property as best they can by themselves. Abdurrachman Wahid, leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, accused local officials of doing "nothing at all" to stop the fires (Financial Times 26/9/97). Journalists reporting from affected regions agreed. Reasons for the apparent indifference are not hard to find. One is that Jakarta has been largely been spared the suffocating smoke-smog others cities downwind of the fires have endured. This has meant that the fires have not commanded the priority attention, as perhaps they would, had Jakarta itself been as badly affected as, say Kuala Lumpur in neighbouring Malaysia. Another reason for official lethargy is the generally held view that little can be done to stop the fires, because they are a "natural" phenomenon, which must be left for nature itself (the rains) to deal with.
Only once the fires were raging out of control over a huge area and the smoke was bad enough to prompt complaints from neighbouring countries did the Indonesian fire-fighting machine start getting cranked up. But Environment Minister Sarwono's appeals for a "sense of urgency" were still unheeded, as the government struggled to deal with a deepening currency crisis and went about its more mundane political business.
The efforts that were made to fight the fires included attempts, largely unsuccessful, to seed clouds and bring rain to some affected provinces. These attempts were planned for provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but also on Java, where the aim was to replenish dams affected by the worst drought for 50 years. A thousand Malaysian fire-fighters were flown in to join their Indonesian colleagues and in late September, President Suharto ordered four million civil servants to turn their hand to fire-fighting. Water pumps were brought in to try and extinguish the peat and coal fires burning underground. But the co-ordination was bad (Malaysian fire-fighters were reported to be sent to fires already put out, for example) with different government departments taking independent action. The fire-fighters could do little to stop the fires spreading further or lift the pall of smoke enveloping the region.
Why was the country so ill-prepared? Since serious fires seem to appear every three or four years and "the haze, as it is euphemistically referred to in the region, is an annual feature over parts of South East Asia, it seems obvious that more effective preventative measures should have been put in place by now. Pleading a lack of financial resources must be ruled out when the companies responsible have profited so much from burning the forests each year. Indonesia's timber barons and plantation tycoons have enriched themselves and their families at the expense of the country's natural resources, while dispossessing smallholders and indigenous forest-dwellers of their lands and livelihoods. President Suharto, whose family businesses include timber, pulp and agro-industry (as well as numerous other sectors of the economy) is one of the world's richest rulers. In July this year Forbes Magazine ranked him 3rd, estimated wealth US $16 billion, in a table of "Kings, Queens and Dictators", after the Sultan of Brunei and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. (Forbes 28/7/97).
But "personal" wealth aside, it is not as if the forests have failed to generate income for the government. According to Forestry Minister Djamaludin, the Reforestation Fund, a tax collected from timber concessionaires, had amounted to over Rp 2 trillion (US 540 million) by September this year. An unnamed source in Department said the figure should, in fact, be twice as high at Rp 4.2 trillion (US $ 1.1 billion), but that they didn't know where the rest had gone. (SiaR 10/9/97).
Whatever the total figure, why hasn't this fund been used to plan ahead for the fires? It would have been far better spent on fire-fighting equipment, or, better still, on finding ways to reform forest management policy, than funding the development of the state-owned aircraft or deforesting a million hectares of peatland in Central Kalimantan to create an environmental disaster zone. (See main article, this issue and DTE 29/30.) Only when the fires were well out of control in September was it announced that money from the Fund should contribute to the fire-fighting efforts. The Rp 2.6 billion (US$ 703,000) announced was still around a hundred times less than the Rp 250 billion (US$68 million)* lent to timber tycoon Bob Hasan for his East Kalimantan pulp project Kiani Kertas. (The feeder plantation, Kiani Lestari, is now one of those accused of burning forests).
Little action seems to have been taken to mitigate the impact of the smoke on people's health, or even inform the population of its dangers. It was left to NGOs, like the environmental organisation, WALHI, to try and fill the gap, by distributing masks and setting up emergency information and advice centres. * Another source says Kiani Kertas project got Rp 600 billion (US $ 162 million)
Reporting the disaster
National reporting of the fires was at best intermittent until the fires were defined as an international disaster by neighbouring countries. News reports have focused on the impact of the smoke-smog caused by the fires on the cities, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching in Sarawak, Pekanbaru, and Medan in Sumatra, Pontianak and Palangkaraya in Kalimantan. The reporting has been city-biassed with next to no news about what is happening in the small villages and towns in the interior. One reason for this is that the ability of reporters to travel has been limited by the pall of smoke hanging in the air as well as the physical barriers of the fires themselves preventing movement. In some areas accessible only by river, the combination of fires and long drought have made travel impossible as river water levels subside.
The reports also appear to have concentrated on Sumatra and Kalimantan, with just a few about West Papua. However, satellite imagery shows that large areas of Sulawesi are also on fire: next to no news has been appeared in the national press about this area.
With censorship always lurking around the corner in Indonesia, it was inevitable that hitting hard at the companies involved could not go on unhindered. Accordingly, say sources in Jakarta, newspaper editors were summoned to a meeting with seven ministers around October 10th, and told not to emphasise the fires issue. Another source says the press was instructed to blame the fires on El Nino, thus letting the responsible companies off the hook.
This year, satellite imagery has been able to show what most people knew all along: that big business and not small-holders or indigenous farmers are responsible for the fires. What is new this time around is that government ministers, notably Environment Minister Sarwono, are speaking out against the greed and short termism of the plantation and timber companies. "They have a high level of education, but a primitive way of thinking. They only seek the biggest profit, without thinking of the national interest", said an 'emotional' Sarwono at a press conference in September.
Forestry Minister Djamaludin has backed Sarwono, publishing lists of companies identified by satellite pictures as being responsible for starting fires. The most comprehensive of these which names 176 companies, includes companies owned by Indonesia's most powerful tycoons - Bob Hasan, Pangestu Prayogo (Barito Pacific Group), Anthony Salim (Salim Group) and Eka Tjipta Wijaya (Sinar Mas) - as well as members of the Suharto family itself. Some of the 176 companies had started clearing land without waiting for their applications for land clearing licences to be approved. Djamaludin announced that these companies had fifteen days to submit reports to prove they had not started the fires, or would have their licences withdrawn. In early October he duly announced that 151 licences had been withdrawn from 29 companies, including three belonging to Bob Hasan in East Kalimantan (see list of companies, below). One plantation on company on the list of 29 is PT Musi Rindang Wahana, in South Sumatra, a part of the Citra Lamtoro Group, controlled by Suharto's eldest daughter, Tutut (Forum Keadilan 23/6/94). It remains to be seen how far Bob Hasan and friends will allow Djamaludin to oppose his authority (Bob Hasan is sometimes referred to as the "real" forestry minister). On previous occasions when ministers have challenged the tycoons, they have usually been forced to back down. A clear sign that Djamaludin had overstepped the mark this time came when calls for his resignation were heard in parliament. Djamaludin has offered to resign, saying that he, as forestry minister must bear responsibility for the disaster. Whether this offer will be accepted by Suharto is as yet uncertain. Even before the fires this year, Djamaludin's term was generally expected to end when Suharto chooses his new cabinet after he is reinstalled as President. Now he is certain to go.
In defence of indigenous agriculture
Forestry Minister Djamaludin has made no bones about who is to blame for the fires. In July in what was to be a futile appeal to companies not to clear land by burning, he said:
We can tolerate local people clearing land in a traditional way by burning the forest, but plantation companies can afford other ways of clearing land.
(Jakarta Post 29/7/97)
Environment Minister Sarwono was more openly sympathetic:
While bosses of large plantations just walk into their air-conditioned offices if the situation becomes too smoky, these voiceless people have to take all the blame and suffer from suffocating smoke.. (The Independent 4/9/97)
Bob Hasan bites back
Not usually know for his reticence, Indonesia's premier timber tycoon, Bob Hasan, remained largely silent as the fires started spreading in July and August. But soon his public relations machine swung into action and in September he was busy agreeing with Suharto that the fires were a "natural" disaster. He blamed small farmers for the fires and denied responsibility for deliberately burning his own company's concessions. At one press conference he accused the environmental NGO, WALHI, of behaving like a communist organisation. In the UK he went on television burbling about the number of jobs that depended on the forestry industry.
Minister Co-ordinator for People's Welfare Azwar Anas joined the chorus, denying that the government had failed to anticipate the fires and adding that no-one was entitled to claim compensation for losses.
Barito Pacific boss, Pangestu Prayogo, said the fires in his listed South Sumatra concession, started outside his company's area. The company named, PT Musi Hutan Persada (MHP), is the supplier of raw materials for PT Tanjung Enim Lestari's huge pulp mill in the province. This project has been vigorously opposed by local and international NGOs,
including Down to Earth (see DTE 34). PT MHP accused a neighbouring plantation company, PT London Sumatra, of starting the fires which affected his concession. (Media 27/9/97) Strangely, this company was quoted by the Financial Times around the same time, saying "A lot of the plantations do burn their land... We have a no-burn policy." (FT 26/9/97) This passing to and fro of the buck would be laughable if the circumstances were not so tragic.
The industry's attempts to defend itself ring especially hollow when the likes of Bob Hasan admit they see nothing wrong with burning to clear land, even though it has been officially outlawed by the government. The fact that deliberate burning is still continuing shows instead how confident the tycoons are that they are above the law. Such is the culture of cronyism that pervades Indonesian economic life.
Although Dr Mahathir's communications to the Indonesian President could be described as terse, it warranted a much firmer response given the havoc caused to Malaysia by the thick clouds of smoke drifting across the border. The reticence was probably due to the fact that Malaysian companies share some responsibility for the fires. They have been moving into Indonesia in droves to take advantage of cheaper land and labour. Eighteen companies have been identified as involved in joint ventures with some of the Indonesian businesses named by the Forestry Department (eight of them are listed below). But at least Mahathir did not completely duck the issue. Instead he threatened to name these companies if they did not do something to help put out the fires. Nearly all the companies agreed to donate around US $33,000 each towards the Malaysian government's fire-fighting costs on top of taking their own action to put out the fires.
1) Perak Agricultural Development Authority 2) Selaseh Pertama (Penang) 3) Tradewinds (M) Bhd 4) EPA Management (A Johor Economic Development Corporation subsidiary) 5) Mentiga Plantations 6) Lumivos Resources Management 7) Selat Bersatu (all Kuala Lumpur) 8) Bonggaya Plantations (a joint venture between Tabung Haji and Indonesia PT Multi Gambut) (Source: Forests Monitor)
How much damage?
Estimates of the damage vary wildly depending on the source. In early September Environment Minister Sarwono was mentioning the figure of 100,000 hectares of forests burned in Kalimantan and Sumatra, revised down from an earlier figure of 300,000 hectares. (Jakarta Post 3/9/97) On September 17th, Antara quoted the figure of 300,000 again.
At the end of that month official figures from the Forestry Department were as low as 96,000 hectares, most of which were production and protected forests. This contrasted markedly with the earlier estimate of World Wide Fund for Nature's Jakarta office which put the damage at least half a million hectares. (Financial Times 26/9/97) Regional estimates from official sources - Central Kalimantan at 270,000 hectares - exceeded the national figures. On September 26th the Jakarta Post put the damage at 800,000 hectares in Kalimantan and Sumatra alone. A week later the Sydney Morning Herald quoted the same figure. The latest estimate from WALHI in October is as high as 1.7 million hectares.
How much does this represent in terms of total forest cover? It is thought that natural forests now amount to no more than 100 million hectares, although the timber lobby claims there are 143 million hectares. But they are diminishing fast at a rate of at least a million hectares - or 1% - a year. This year, the deforestation rate looks set to go well above the million mark from the fires alone.
West Papua: fires hamper drought relief
In West Papua, it is the drought that is being blamed for the starving to death of hundreds of indigenous Papuans in the central mountain region. The death toll from famine and waterborne diseases had amounted to over 140 by September 20, rising to over 275 a week later and a staggering 413 by the 7th of October, according to newspaper reports. Fires in nearby areas were said to be hampering flights with relief supplies to the isolated starving villages. On September 26, the Jakarta Post reported that 80,000 hectares had been affected by fires, including part of the Lorentz National Park. Antara reported that the fires had swept into neighbouring Papua New Guinea, destroying a border camp inhabited by 600 West Papuan political refugees.
Frost has compounded the drought in higher altitude areas, destroying the staple crop of cassava. According to the charity World Vision, an estimated 200,000 people are being affected by the shortages and the situation will get worse over the next two months as the crop failures take their toll.
There are some indications that the famine in the highlands is not entirely due to the drought. It may be a man-made disaster too, linked to the high number of troops in the region. Since members of the West Papuan guerrilla army, or OPM, took European scientists hostage early last year, the highlands have been crawling with Indonesian troops. They have been requisitioning food and preventing villagers suspected of siding with the OPM, from tending their gardens, and so denying them their means of growing food.
Mega-fires in Central Kalimantan
Central Kalimantan's environmental catastrophe in-the-making has been responsible for many of the fires on Borneo. Companies contracted to clear the land appear on the list of 176 issued by the Forestry Department. The Provincial Forestry Department said in October that satellite data showed that at least 270,000 hectares of Central Kalimantan's forests had been destroyed. This was not including areas where fires covered less than 50 hectares, which the satellite could not detect. (Kompas Online 12/10/97)
In September the Transmigration Minister Siswono confirmed that fires had burned down at least 100 unoccupied houses built for transmigrants brought in to work on the project. At the beginning of August Minister of Agriculture Sjarifuddin Baharsjah said the drought was not affecting the project and that 20,000 more families would be brought in as planned to join 2,500 already settled there. Scarcely a week later, another local newspaper reported that transmigrants at the project, unable to grow crops in the drought conditions, were returning home or resorting to illegal logging to make a living. (Media 22/8/97)
The project, launched in 1996, aims to convert around 1.45 million hectares of peat swamp forests - an area about the size of Northern Ireland - into rice-fields, plantations and transmigration sites. Scientists say the project cannot succeed because the peatlands will not support this kind of agriculture. Nevertheless, on the instructions of Suharto, the project blunders on and the forests are burned to the ground in what one journalist recently termed an act of government-sponsored "hooliganism" rather than of development. (See DTE 29/30 and more recent issues for background). The lives of indigenous Dayak people living in the project area have been devastated by the project -- see main section, page one for a report on the impact on their lives.
Lessons not learned: The fires of the past
The forests have suffered serious fires no less than five times in the past fifteen years. The worst years were 1982/3 when around 3.7 million hectares - just bigger than the size of Belgium - was destroyed in East Kalimantan alone. 1987 saw the next big burn. In 1991 El Nino and the fires returned, bringing smog problems to neighbouring countries. At the time, estimates of the damage done ranged from below 100,000 hectares to half a million (see DTE 15, 1991 for a full report on these fires). After the 1994 fires, the government went so far as to guarantee there would be no more fires (Jakarta Post 13/10/97) This episode triggered seminars and discussions, an Asean Co-operation Plan on Transboundary Pollution was drawn up by regional officials. But as this year's blaze proves, no concrete effective measures to prevent the fires have resulted.
Judging from the government's response to this year's fires it seems that nothing has been learned from the past. Despite good intentions announced after each disaster, nothing has really changed.
Anti-forest fires alliance set up
In October a new grouping of NGOs and students groups set up ASAP-Hutan, or the Anti-Forest Fires Alliance. Their statement said "The fundamental cause is the way in which the country is ruled, with no regard for peoples' sovereignty. If the wishes of the people were uppermost and were taken into account in handling our natural resources, such a calamity would never have happened. The problem is that the policy of granting forest concessions gives businessmen the power to exploit our forests free from the necessary supervision or the imposition of sanctions for those who breach the regulations."
ASAP-Hutan is demanding that the executive board and members of the Indonesian Timber Association (MPI) be put on trial, that all forest concessions be revoked and that the Indonesian government apologise to the Indonesian people.
The Alliance said it was not enough to cancel permits but that the forest should be returned to the people, "in particular the forest people, [who] are acutely aware of the need to preserve and protect the forests upon which their very lives depend." (ASAP-Hutan, 8/10/97, signed by PIJAR, Nusantara Youth Council, SKEPHI, and several students associations.)
The massive and permanent loss of natural forests in Indonesia is a direct result of the loggers' rush to make the greatest possible profit in the short term, at the expense of the forests themselves and the forest-dwelling communities who traditionally own them.
This emphasis on "mining" the forests makes fires and smog inevitable. Logging involves extracting the most valuable commercial trees, but the heavy machinery used brings down many more smaller or non-commercial trees at the same time, leaving behind large amounts of waste wood. As it is dried by sun, which can now penetrate the broken forest canopy, it is turned into a natural tinderbox, igniting with the smallest spark. At the same time, many forests grow on peat and coal deposits, which burn deep underground and can become impossible to put out. Long after the surface fires have been put out in Kalimantan and Sumatra, these unseen, underground may smoulder on for years.
But the conversion of huge tracts of forests into plantations has emerged as the policy which is most directly to blame for the fires and their life-threatening smoke. The drive to plant high-earning export crops is part of government economic strategy to reduce dependence on oil and gas for foreign currency earnings. The current craze is to plant as much land as possible with oil palm and topple Malaysia from its position as the world's biggest producer of palm oil. Jakarta plans to double its area under oil palm to 5.5 million hectares by the year 2000. This year alone, 300,000 hectares of forest was approved for conversion to the crop, which is used to make soap, margarine and cooking oil. Meanwhile, Jakarta has similar ambitions for pulp production, aiming to become the world's biggest producer at some undefined point next century. The target for timber estates to produce pulpwood is 4.4 million hectares by 2004. (Guardian 14/10/97)
To make way for plantations natural forests, which have usually been logged for commercial timber, are cleared by burning because it is the cheapest and quickest method of preparing the land. According to Forestry Minister Djamaludin, around 550,000 hectares of natural forests are cleared each year for plantations alone.
In September last year Djamaludin said that 650 companies were lining up for government permits to convert forests into plantations. If all permits are granted, up to 6 million hectares of forests would be converted. (Jakarta Post 25/9/96)
With so much vegetation to get rid of, it is no wonder the debris fills the air over such a huge area. It is as if the skies above Indonesia's forests are being used as one huge rubbish dump.
The government officially outlawed clearance by burning in 1995, a year after the last El Nino created conditions for serious fires and smog. But the response from the companies was to ignore the law and carry on as before. Confidence in corruptible officials and lack of law enforcement ensured that big companies felt able to openly flout the regulations.
It is not as if the profits from destroying the forests trickle down to Indonesia's millions on or below the poverty line. Instead they enrich further still the handful of tycoons and their families. As a sop to the masses, occasional crumbs are thrown when Suharto orders the conglomerate bosses to donate a small percentage of their profits to the less fortunate. But the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, fuelling the democracy movement and its calls for radical change.
Using "cheap" methods to clear land for plantations mean quick profits for those who accumulate the wealth, but Indonesia's ordinary mortals pay the real price. This year more than any others, citizens of Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines have joined them. They are paying now and will probably still be paying twenty or thirty years from now, when scientists predict that the incidence of cancers will start to rise.
For the indigenous forest-dwellers of Indonesia the price is doubly high - not only have they suffered the effects of breathing the poisoned air, but their lands and resources, taken by the plantation and timber estate companies, have literally gone up in smoke.
Laws not used
The public listing of companies accused comes as a welcome change to those tired of seeing the usual scapegoats - indigenous forest-dwellers - blamed year in year out. But Forestry Minister Djamaludin's tactic of "naming and shaming" is not a new one. It has been used several times by the Environment Ministry to try and persuade companies to stop fouling the rivers with industrial pollution, unfortunately to little effect. The trouble is, there seems little else these ministries can do to punish offenders as it is up to the police and the judiciary to bring offending companies to the courts. NGOs and affected communities have taken polluters to court, with little success. The limited powers of the Forestry Ministry in the present emergency means that only 29 companies have had some of their permits suspended. Instead, if the laws were properly implemented, guilty parties could be expected to face 15 years in jail and a maximum fine of Rp 250 million. These are the latest punishments stipulated in the new Environment Law, passed by Parliament in August and which came into force in September. Now would be a opportune moment to put the law to good use. Whether the police will act on evidence provided by the Forestry and Environment Ministries remains to be seen. One Straits Times report quoted the Attorney General Singgih responding positively to the calls for tough action, saying he had ordered the courts to co-operate with police. He did not discount the possibility of using the anti-subversion law as well. (ST 21/9/97) But under the current system, where business interests reign supreme, it is more than likely these words will not be translated into action. There is, at the moment, little chance of Bob Hasan and his cronies ending up behind bars.
The big question now is will Suharto do anything to stop this happening again? Given his blood-spattered career, which has seen him preside over one of the worst massacres in human history, he is probably immune from the emotional impact of television pictures showing coughing and wheezing children, rushed to hospital after collapsing at school. But is he really so remote from public feeling in his own country and among his neighbours that he will not recognise the need to act for the sake of his own political survival? Tinkering with fire-fighting equipment and buying a few water bombers does not count. What will make a difference is a real rethink of how forests and other natural resources are managed. The emphasis needs to change from short-term profiteering to long-term stewardship. Indonesians themselves must decide how this is done and there are plenty of suggestions to kick off with. Handing back forest management to forest-dwellers and recognising indigenous land rights are two which make more and more sense if any natural forests are to be saved from extinction in the next century. But first the need for such radical change has to be recognised by the powers that be in Jakarta. Whether this will happen in a community whose wealth derives from these very resources, is highly unlikely. Perhaps then, any real change must await the end of Suharto and the collapse of his power structure. But with Indonesia's political future so uncertain, the wait could well be a long, destructive and choking one.