Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Who are the main culprits of land fires and haze?

The government needs to identify the main culprits behind the land fires and haze that have caused health problems and hindered daily activities in Indonesia and the neighboring countries.

The main culprits of forest and bush fires must be identified to ascertain whether they are plantation companies, nomadic farmers, or individuals, so that effective steps can be taken to overcome the problems.

Environment expert Mohammad Hasroel of the University of Indonesia affirmed that the haze in several parts of the country was caused by land clearing activities for conducting rice farming.

However, according to the environmental forum Walhi, most of the hotspots in Indonesia are found in the concession areas of companies.

The environmental forum pointed out that from January to September 2015, the Institute of National Aviation and Space (LAPAN) recorded 16,334 hotspots, while the NASA FIRM noted 24,086 cases of fires in the five provinces of Jambi, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra, and Riau.

The air pollution index in these regions has far exceeded the lower limit of the hazardous level. In Central Kalimantan, for instance, the index reached 1.3 thousand, or four times higher than the dangerous level of 300-500.

Hasroel and Walhi hold differing opinions on forest fires, thereby indicating that the main land arsonists are corporations as land fires are mostly found in the concession areas of companies.

Haze mostly resulted from land clearing activities undertaken for cultivating rice. This practice is common in Sumatra in the run-up to the year end.

"So, the people set fires to land as they want to plant paddy and not to plant palm oil," Hasroel noted on Tuesday.

He remarked that Indonesia has a population of 250 million people, with an annual increase of two percent, or about five million. If each of them consumes 120 kilograms of rice annually, an additional 600 thousand tons of rice will be needed every year. This means that a total of 300 thousand hectares of new rice fields will also be needed per annum.

"As they need rice, they expand the area for cultivating rice (by burning land). I hope the president will give serious attention to this," the environment expert emphasized.

To this end, the government should prepare 300 thousand hectares of additional land every year in order to stop the practice of using fire for land clearing activities.

Although he believes that most of the fires arose from the burning of land to make way for rice fields, yet Hasroel did not rule out the possibility of one or two corporations contributing to the haze problem.

"It is undeniable that one or two companies are involved. Those found guilty must be punished," he added.

Eddy Martono of the Indonesian Palm Oil Companies Association (Gapksi) has earlier said that it is impossible for companies to burn their plantation land because land is part of their production facilities

"With regulations being so tight, it is impossible for any palm oil company to burn its land deliberately. After all, land is part of any firms production facilities," Eddy Martono said.

He said Gapki has branches in 12 provinces with a total cultivation area of 3.9 million hectares and 663 companies as members. The total acreage catering to palm oil sector in Indonesia is recorded at 10.9 million hectares.

"This means that our members control about 35 percent of the total palm oil plantation areas in Indonesia," he said.

A total of 14 firms affiliated to Gapki have had their palm oil plantations gutted by fires. About 2,900 hectares of palm plantations and about 1,000 hectares of nuclear plantations were gutted. "Of the total burnt land, only 100 hectares had not been planted. The remaining had already been planted. Logically, companies would not have burnt their land which was going to produce wealth," he said.

Martono said palm oil companies clear the land with mechanical equipment at a cost of about Rp6 million per hectare. The money invested in opening a palm oil plantation from the beginning until harvest period is about Rp60 to Rp70 million per hectare, or about 10 percent of the total cost.

"Logically, (it is an impossible theory that some companies will burn land) because in order to save Rp6 million per hectare, no company will take such a big risk. It will face the risk of having its permit revoked and facing a fine of not only tens of billions of rupiahs but hundreds of billions of rupiahs. Is there any company willing to face such a big risk of burning land to save Rp6 million per hectare for land clearing?" he questioned.

In the meantime, the Indonesian National Police (Polri) has named 240 people as suspects who allegedly set fire to forest and land, causing a haze disaster in Sumatra and Kalimantan regions.

Polri Chief General Badrodin Haiti said police had named 240 suspects, including corporations and individuals. "We have also detained a businessman involved in the palm oil sector who was the alleged mastermind behind forest fires in Indonesia," he said on Tuesday.

Haiti said the catastrophic forest fires caused millions of people to become victims of the haze disaster.

He said justice must be served in case of forest fires and any future recurrence prevented by bringing arsonists to book, as it will act as a deterrent for other criminals who indulge in burning lands in Indonesia and causing haze.

The haze this time had even hit some countries bordering Indonesia, such as Malaysia and Singapore.

The General said the disaster led to a very critical situation because it had a widespread impact on health, social and economic sectors in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

"We will continue investigating the case to unveil the masterminds behind forest fires in Indonesia," Haiti said. (Antara)

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