No significant effort made to deal with forest fires
Source: The Jakarta Post, September 02, 2004
Forest fires have become a fact of life in several areas in Sumatra andKalimantan. However, the government has yet to make significant efforts to deal with the core problems that cause the fires. The recent forest fire inEast Kalimantan, which has more than 100 hot spots, has even reached a coal mining site and residential areas.Fajar Pambudhi, deputy head of the Centerfor Social Forestry (CSF) at the Mulawarman University in Samarinda, East Kalimantan talked to The Jakarta Post’s correspondent Rusman on the fires,which have destroyed thousands of hectares of forests in the province.
Question: Forest fires occur every year in East Kalimantan, however nobody seems to know how to prevent them. How do you see this?
Answer: Frankly, fires can occur at any time. There are times when fires occur more than once in a year. The fires are mainly caused by large-scaleof land clearance, which includes the burning of the forest during the dry season.
Why do people burn the forests when clearing the land?
There are two groups of people. We should distinguish between the indigenous villagers and the migrants in this case. By tradition, the indigenous people separate the newly cleared area from the existing forest by building a kind of firebreak entrenchment alongareas to be cleared. They clear the land and carefully monitor the spread of the fire. In this way, the fires don’t spread out of control and burn the whole forest,including residential areas. Those who violate this by not controlling the fire will be subject to punishment or fines. There is an internal regulation that is respected bythe indigenous community.
The migrants also burn to clear the land, because the fires will also help the soil become more fertile. The problem is they usually fail to controlthe spread of fire as they work individually. In addition to the residential areas, the coal mining site and the conserved forest areas were also ravaged by the most recent major fire.
What really happened?
As far as I know that area was formerly a coal mining site. Trees and other vegetation have grown up around the area. The area became vulnerable tofire in the dry season. Brush fires at former mining locations have happened in several areas, including Kutai Kertanegara. I’m sure that land clearance has been the main cause of the fires. I have discussed this with local people. They said the fire, which raged in thearea close to the coal mining site were set by people living close to the area. I don’t believe that the fire was a natural phenomenon. …
How do you see the East Kalimantan administration’s policy to cope with the fire?
I would say there have been no significant efforts to deal with the fire. The administration has paid very little attention to the core problem,despite the special budget allocation. The most important thing to do is to open access in the forest by constructing proper roads to make it possiblefor fire engines to reach the fires. When fires ravaged the Bukit Soeharto conservation area in 1999, fire fighters found it difficult to reach the fire due to poor access. Water is another problem during the dry season.
Then, what should the administration do to minimize — if not eradicate — the forest fires?
The most important thing is establishment of an information network system, which directly involves people. In this way fires — even small ones –could be dealt with at an early stage. The system must start at the lowest level in the community and punishment, including fines, must also beplanned and introduced to the community. This will run smoothly only if the community is mature and strong.
There must be good cooperation between the people and the government (administration) before the system is established. We don’t want to seepeople doing nothing but watching when a fire starts. Involving people in this issue is the correct and wise policy.
What is the most serious impact (to the people) of the forest fires?
Health and transportation. Many people have reportedly suffered from respiratory problems. Some of the fires take place on locations close tothe provincial main roads. The fire and the haze do disturb people who have to use the roads. (The haze has also become a big problem in neighboringcountries.) Vehicle accidents become more likely in such a situation with poor visibility.
Apart from land clearance, is there anything else to be noted as a significant contributor to forest fires?
Illegal logging. Such activities usually take place in the dry season. Illegal loggers prefer to clear the forest — by burning the brush aroundthe area — to establish roads to transport the stolen logs.
Do you have any special concrete and reasonable idea you could offer to the government to deal with forest fires?
Empowerment of the people is a must. People living in villages must be made aware of how to preserve and improve the environment in their neighborhood. The government (provincial administration and the central government) must be more approachable and pay more attention to the people living in areasvulnerable to fire just to encourage and enhance the people’s participation in preserving the environment.