Forest fires

Down to Earth No 62  August 2004

The burning season started early in Sumatra this year, but Jakarta has been too preoccupied with the elections to take action on forest fires.

Thick smoke blanketed parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan for several days during June and July, resulting in the now familiar symptoms of delayed flights and the authorities handing out face masks. Local governments are preparing lawsuits against plantation companies and farmers were blamed for the land-clearing blazes.

The first indications of the annual dry-season hazard came from Riau where, despite relatively heavy rains, the number of fires began to increase and 'haze' affected parts of mainland Riau in mid-February. Riau's environment management agency relies on reports on hotspots in the province from nearby Singapore. Together with the local agriculture and forestry offices, it is responsible for monitoring and taking action against fires on forest lands under a decree issued by Riau's governor early last year.

In Singapore, concerns about the fires in Sumatra rose as the annual haze became evident and air quality deteriorated. By mid-June, there were over 400 'hot spots' in Sumatra, mostly in Riau and Jambi. The Malaysian authorities were saying that the pollution problems were the worst since 1997-8 when thick smoke from burning forests blanketed Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia for several months. They issued warnings of unhealthy air in some cities including Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca, and warned residents to stay inside. The Malaysian government has not published the air pollution index for the last five years for fear that publicising the 'haze' will affect its valuable tourism industry.

Thick haze blanketed the city of Jambi from dusk until dawn for much of June. However, the fires have, to date, been worst in Riau. There were 435 hotspots in the province on one day in June. Riau's dwindling forests are under severe pressure from oil palm plantations and small-scale agriculture. There are also extensive tracts of peatland, where fires generate most smoke and are most difficult to extinguish. Last year, the environmental NGO WALHI unsuccessfully tried to sue Riau governor, Saleh Djasit, for his lack of action over forest fires in the province. Of the ten illegal burning cases where the local government said it was taking legal action in 2003, only one has so far reached the courts. An environment agency official said that illegal burning in Riau had destroyed 1,008 hectares of forest in the past six months.

The Riau authorities have announced that they are preparing to prosecute another ten companies in the province, in lawsuits costing Rp 2 trillion (US$213 billion), for using fire for land clearance. Officials from the environment ministry reported five Riau companies suspected of starting fires to the national police. The plantations and industrial timber estates have not been named. Nevertheless, an official spokesman outlined one case in Minas where the director of a plantation allegedly ordered 1,200 hectares of land to be cleared by burning.

Indonesia's forestry law (No.41/1999) bans the use of fire to clear forest land, but the new Plantations Act, passed in July, allows up to 10 years' imprisonment and Rp10 billion in fines for people who 'deliberately or out of negligence' burn for land clearance. Plantation companies are worried: fire is by far the cheapest method of land clearance and it is a common ploy for company managers to claim that fires in their concession areas were started by local people or natural causes. Benny Tjoeng, vice president of one of Indonesia's biggest oil palm companies - PT Astra Agro Lestari - wants the government to define clearly what is meant by 'deliberate' and 'negligence' in connection with burning.

In the international news, Indonesia's illegal burning problem has been overshadowed by spectacular forest fires in US. In Indonesia, the annual outbreak of 'hot spots' and acrid haze is hardly considered newsworthy. Local officials put the blame on small-scale farmers for using fire to clear land for farming. Environmental NGOs accuse the large-scale plantation companies and industrial timber estates. Everyone says that there is much corruption and turning a blind eye to the evidence. "We keep urging government to apply stern policies, but so far there is no significant solution," said Ade Fadli - WALHI's forest campaigner.

Jakarta has been far more concerned with the general and presidential elections to take much notice. Vice President Hamsah Haz brushed off questions from the international press saying that it was up to the regional authorities, not central government, to take effective action. However, local media reported in late June that the environment minister Nabiel Makarim has ordered staff to investigate cases so that the guilty companies and individuals can be brought to justice soon. The minister said at least 20 million Indonesians were directly affected by the haze.

Some local authorities have attempted to extinguish the fires by sending out staff to affected areas and the forestry department has redeployed some of its 10,000 forest police to tackle the fires. In some places, local people have put out blazes where their own forests and crops are threatened. But the most effective form of fire control has been the rain. The dry season in Sumatra and Kalimantan usually lasts from May to September and this year it is unlikely to be prolonged by El Niño. Heavy showers had extinguished most of the hot spots in central Sumatra by the second week in July. Expects think that fires are unlikely to recur before early August.

The deputy environment ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei met in Riau in mid-July as part of ASEAN's attempt to control forest fires and the resultant air pollution in the region. The working group meeting was also attended by environment management agencies from Riau, Jambi, West Kalimantan and North Sumatra plus environmental NGOs. Their agenda was to evaluate progress and to prepare for an ASEAN ministerial meeting on fires later this year. Indonesia has yet to ratify the Haze Agreement, signed in 2002 by ASEAN members.

(Riau Pos 26/Feb/04; Straits Times 5/May/04; Reuters 14/May/04, 23/Jun/04; Media Indonesia 20/Jun/04; AP 24/Jun/04; Kompas 18/Jul/04; Jakarta Post 26/May/03, 23/Jun/04, 25/Jun/04, 19/Jul/04, 22/Jul/04; walhinews 14/Jul/04; CNA via Joyo 16/Jul/04; Bisnis Indonesia 8/Jul/04)