East Kalimantan burns and starves

Down to Earth No. 37 May 1998

The forest fires are back. In East Kalimantan, the worst hit area so far, tens of thousands of hectares are burning out of control. The fires -- mostly deliberately set by big business -- and the continuing effects of the drought are bringing famine and dispossession to local communities whose once rich resources have been plundered and destroyed.

The ongoing economic crisis in Indonesia is making matters worse. Villagers cannot afford the inflated prices of rice and other necessities they now must rely on as they run out of food produced themselves. Future prospects look bleak. Almost all this year's rice crop has failed in East Kalimantan and many of the rattan and fruit gardens which normally generate extra income have been consumed by fire. No substantial rains are expected before July or August, meaning no rice harvest until next February.

Twenty five thousand people were facing severe food shortages as early as February, according to a report in The Age (22/2/98) as no significant rainfall had fallen in the usual wet season. In early March the local government was reporting that as many as 25 of the 38 subdistricts in Kutai district, East Kalimantan, were experiencing food shortages, with 10 of these categorised as serious. Official figures are usually very much on the conservative side. Around the same time Dayak villagers from Kutai, representing 8,000 people went to the vice-governor of East Kalimantan, requesting a free supply of rice to affected villages. By April the official figure for people suffering food shortages had risen to 55,529. (Kompas 2/3/98, 3/4/98, Kompas Online 9/3/98)

Water shortages are becoming severe owing to the drought and as fire-fighting efforts and communities rely on the same meagre resources. Dried up rivers cannot be fished and make transport of food supplies more difficult. In some areas high acidity levels may make fresh water unfit for drinking. In the city of Samarinda (population 400,000) the water supply ran out in February when salt water intrusion 60 km up the Mahakam river made local supplies undrinkable.

There is evidence that the fires and famine are reinforcing the marginalisation of indigenous Dayak communities. One report tells how companies are using the fires to try and force local people off their land. Dayaks in Lempunah village who have refused to exchange their land for places on an oil palm project have seen their village stricken by mysterious fires. (Independent 9/2/98) In other places Dayaks who have been coerced or forced into exchanging land for food have no option but to work for minimal wages as labourers on the plantations. Some believe that the companies are burning local fruit and rattan gardens on purpose to force a settlement on resisting communities. At the same time, some villagers are settling old scores and setting fire to plantations developed by large companies.

There is little evidence that the impending famine is attracting much attention from central government in Jakarta. There the new "friends and relations" cabinet of President Suharto is struggling to keep control of an increasingly volatile political situation as well as attempting to hammer out a mutually acceptable way out of the financial morass with the International Monetary Fund (see page 4). They have had little time for the starving thousands in West Papua (where foreign journalists have been banned and the extent of the famine played down see p.9) and, it seems, they have even less for the victims of fire and drought in East Kalimantan.

As in West Papua, the government appears reluctant to admit the seriousness of the famine threat. One forestry department official suggested that the fires and food shortages were following a fifteen year cycle – an attempt to put the problems down to natural forces. But this is contradicted by a Kenyah Dayak leader from Muara Anclong in Kutai district who says his community has not experienced food shortages due to forest fires since the Japanese occupation. (Kompas Online 12/3/98)

But if the government is failing to show concern, local NGOs are determined the unfolding tragedy in East Kalimantan does not go unnoticed by the outside world. As early as January a group of NGOs based in the provincial capital Samarinda issued a statement warning of food shortages. It called upon the government to take preventative action against the effect of fires and Indonesia's economic crisis on the local community already suffering from rising prices, the threat of crop failure and food shortages. In March the warning became an appeal for help. Local people, said an NGO statement, were being forced by hunger to sell their land to the local oil palm plantation company at the rate of one hectare for 10 kg of rice. The statement which ends with the contact addresses of four NGOs is asking for donations to be made to a bank account in Samarinda. (Contact DTE for details.)

Thus far the government's response has been woefully inadequate. Some rice has been shipped upriver, but there are reports that relief supplies are being sold by corrupt officials instead of being handed out free of charge. It remains to be seen how committed the new minister for social affairs, the president's eldest daughter Tutut, will be to alleviating poverty among remote indigenous communities: "isolated tribes" as they are officially called, are now her responsibility. So far, her policy is to give hand-outs and set up soup kitchens a far cry from the fundamental changes required to tackle poverty in any meaningful way.

Ironically, among the very few sources of assistance have been the companies that are exploiting the province's natural wealth most intensively. The Indonesian loggers' association, the MPI, has handed out rice, instant noodles, sugar, salt and medicines – little repayment indeed compared to the massive profits extracted from forests traditionally owned by communities now facing starvation. The gold mining company PT Kelian Equatorial Mining (PT KEM), part-owned by Britain's Rio Tinto, said in March it was planning a four-month operation to bring aid to 67,000 people in four subdistricts. (Guardian 23/3/98) The company also told us it would be distributing food paid for by other contributors. (See page 7 for more on Rio Tinto at Kelian and elsewhere.)


Fires out of control

The Indonesian environmental NGO WALHI is predicting that this year's fires may be bigger even than last year's disaster. According to Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) the fires "may turn out to be one of the greatest ecological disasters of the millenium. (Reuter 2/4/98)

Due to the prolonged drought, this year, unusually, the fires are destroying large areas of mature rainforest, normally too wet to burn up completely.

The fires are worst in East Kalimantan, but other areas, including Riau and Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra are also affected. Latest estimates say that an area of between 250,000 and half a million hectares* is affected in East Kalimantan, with one of the worst hit areas this time being the Kutai National Park – see box. Other areas include the Wein River Orang Utan Centre, and the Bukit Soeharto forest park (this was also affected last year.)

By early March, what is euphemistically termed "the haze" was back again over parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra, with its damaging impact on the health of millions. Several airports were closed because of poor visibility – down to 10 metres at times. In Samarinda average smoke levels were twice safe levels, with morning peaks five times as high. Further inland, the situation is thought to be worse. Health problems were reported to be on the increase again in towns like Palangkaraya, provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, especially among children. Pollution levels in Singapore rose to officially unhealthy levels in February, while Brunei's independence day celebrations were moved indoors for fear of the smog.

In Sumatra, fires in Aceh were reported to be moving towards the Gunung Leuser National Park (see p.14 for more on this park). Further south on the island, more fires were reported in Riau province. In Maluku, eastern Indonesia, fires were reported in three subdistricts.

*250,000 hectares is the UNEP figure (21/4/98) 500,000 hectares is WALHI's estimate (30/3/98)


Kutai ablaze

The Kutai National Park is being ravaged by this year's fires. The impact of the blaze which had destroyed 1,500 hectares by early February and 50,000 ha by the end of March, will be felt long after the fires have been put out, according to an internal report by the World Wide Fund for Nature. "We are talking about hundreds of hectares reduced to biological desert" says the report's author." Fires which destroy trees upstream can cause soil to slip into rivers and even have an impact on coral reefs tens of kilometres away Nothing like this works in isolation". (Independent 10/2/98, Jakarta Post 31/3/98) The 198,000 hectare park is home to around 2,000 orang-utans, some of which are being forced out of the dying forest to search for food outside the park. Designed to protect one of the last areas of lowland primary rainforest in Kalimantan, the park is surrounded by commercial interests including mining, logging and plantation development as well as farmland opened by settlers and local people. The companies investing in these projects have formed the Friends of Kutai as part of an effort led by UNESCO to maintain the integrity of the park. (see DTE 33 for more background.) But reports from the area say that such efforts have had little effect. Illegal logging has continued, opening the rainforest canopy in many places and making the park more vulnerable to fire. For the companies purporting to be the park's "friends" the destruction of the area and its consequent loss of park status would probably mean more opportunity for mining, logging and opening plantations. Ultimately, it would be convenient for them to see the park razed by the fires.


No action

If anybody hoped that last year's fires would galvanise Jakarta into taking effective action to stop the burning this year, they were sadly wrong. As last year, satellite imagery indicates that most fires started in plantation and timber estate (HTI) areas. This means that they have been started deliberately by logging, and plantation companies as the cheapest way of clearing land. According to Environment Minister Juwono Sudarsono, 65% of the fires have been caused by companies. The areas include an estate run by Sumalindo, a subsidiary of Astra International which is controlled by top timber tycoon and now Minister of Trade, "Bob" Hasan. (Asiaweek 9/3/98) An earlier report had named another company controlled by Hasan, Kiani Lestari, as having fires in its concessions.(DTE Update on fires/drought in Indonesia Jan/Feb 1998) The International Forest Fire Management (IFFM) project based in Samarinda has found fires raging in the concessions of fifteen oil-palm and timber concerns.

The financial squeeze on timber and plantation companies makes the cheapest option of land clearance – burning – even more attractive, if they can get away with it. All the signs are that they can. The dark threats of legal action and stern measures issued from the Ministries of Forestry and the Environment have come to nothing concrete so far. Of the 176 companies publicly accused of starting fires in their concessions, only a handful had licences suspended. There has been no news of police action announced in November. (See DTE 35 for background)

The latest fires have elicited only a feeble response. In February, then Forestry Minister Djamaludin summoned two companies but refused to name them. (Jakarta Post 10/2/98) In the same month 100 company owners were summoned to the East Kalimantan vice-governor's office to be reminded of their responsibility to put out fires in their areas.

The only legal action reported so far is that five of 16 plantation companies accused of starting fires are to be prosecuted in early May. Environment Minister Juwono said the companies were "mainly foreign-financed joint ventures," including some with Malaysian and Singaporean involvement. "The wheels of justice are grinding slowly I'm afraid," he said, adding that he hoped to get a "major score" of ten or twelve companies by the end of the year. (Dow Jones Newswire 24/4/98) It is not clear whether the 16 (unnamed) companies include three named by the local authorities in East Kalimantan in February who were to be charged "in the near future." The companies were PT London Sumatra and PT Matra Sawit (plantations) and PT Surya Hutani Jaya (HTI). The local government said cases against eleven companies previously suspected of starting fires had not been pursued upon closer examination of the evidence. (Kompas 10/2/98)

In South Sumatra the local chapter of Indonesia's biggest environmental NGO WALHI took matters into their own hands and started legal proceedings against eleven companies. These include PT Musi Hutan Persada, which runs feeder plantations for the controversial PT TEL pulp and paper mill under construction in the province (see DTE 34 for more on this.) WALHI is suing the companies for Rp 2 trillion (about US$2 billion) for environmental damage caused by fires and smoke.(Republika 23/1/98)

It may be significant too that the two ministers who publicly accused big business interests as being responsible for the fires have been dropped from the government. Environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja and Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadiksusmo (who offered to resign over the fires last year) were both replaced in March this year (see also p. 6). Before losing his job Sarwono restated his belief that the fires were mostly started by companies. He said blaming the fires on El Niño and local farmers was "nonsense". (Kontan 13/3/98)

A sense of urgency has been almost entirely absent once again. An appeal for international aid was made at an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in February, but this may be due more to pressure from Indonesia's neighbours who want to avoid a repeat of last year's regional pollution. In Indonesia the government's priority has been to save face by playing down the disaster. According to a report in the British newspaper, the Independent, a public information film made by international forestry experts working with the Indonesian government has never been shown because its was too negative about the impact of last year's fires. (Independent 10/2/98)

Apart from anything else, perhaps "fires fatigue" has set in. Last year's disaster in which an estimated 1.7 million hectares of forests were burned, creating a huge pall of smoke over the whole region, hit the world headlines. With the leaders of neighbouring countries politely but firmly demanding action, Indonesia was spurred into apologising for the disaster, although President Suharto continued to insist that it was a natural calamity. The smoke from the fires is not affecting Jakarta and, as the economic crisis consumes all its attention, the government has admitted that there are fewer resources to attend to the fires because of the falling value of the Rupiah. In a country where food riots were breaking out in many cities and now a sustained revolt by students is requiring the military's attention, the priority of the army is now no longer fire-fighting. In some areas local people and people laid off from logging companies are being paid to fight fires with basic equipment. Attempts at cloud-seeding and water bombing have made little impact. It is generally admitted that only the rains can put out the fires in East Kalimantan.


Counting the costs

Two million hectares of forest and non-forest burned in the 1997 fires is a conservative estimate, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The estimate was made last year by remote sensing experts from the European Union working in Indonesia.

A study conducted by the WWF's Indonesian Programme and the Singapore-based Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) put the losses caused by the smog pollution alone at US$ 1.3 billion. More than 90% of the $I billion figure for Indonesia stemmed from short-term health costs. The study did not take into account such costs as long term damage to health, or losses directly attributable to the fire such as the loss of resources which provide a livelihood for forest-dwellers. EEPSA director David Glover has predicted that the combined cost of this and last year's fires could amount to US$6 billion or the equivalent of 2.5% of the combined total annual GDP or Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The bill is based on estimates of damage if the fires continue until the last quarter of this year. Half is for damage from smog and the rest for damage to the environment. (Reuters 5/3/98, Jakarta Post 18/3/98, WWF-UK press release 25/2/98)

Carbon dioxide generated by the 1997 fires equalled the amount produced by Europe for a whole year. (Asiaweek 9/3/98)


In April the United Nations Environment Programme organised a crisis meeting to address the fires both in Indonesia and the Amazon. A budget of US $10 million was announced to cover short-term action to fight the fires. (UNEP 21/4/98)

Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how this can make any real difference in the absence of political will in Jakarta to bring the corporate arsenists to justice.