Source: Jakarta Post, February 28, 2003 By Moch. N. Kurniawan Jakarta
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are urging the government to stop converting forests into palm oil plantations, warning that the conversion would spark forest fires and floods. Sawit Watch and the Indonesian Environment Forum (Walhi) said a halt to forest conversion was necessary due to the many disasters prompted by palm oil plantations which, along with rubber plantations, now covers a total area of some 8.55 million hectares. “The increase in forest conversions into palm oil plantations has reached 200,000 hectares per year since 1997, when we saw widespread forest fires because of the slash-and-burn land clearing methods used by palm oil plantation companies,” said Rudi Ready Lemuru, Coordinator of Sawit Watch, on Thursday. Rudi was speaking at a public expose of research on forest conversions into palm oil plantations in the areas surrounding Lake Sentarum and Mount Meratus in Kalimantan, where forest conversion has reached alarming levels.
In 1997, Indonesia suffered billions of dollars in losses from environmental destruction caused by the worst forest fires in the country, mainly triggered by palm oil plantation companies burning down forests to clear the land for palm oil crops, said Rudi. Since then, the slash-and-burn method had been prohibited, but the practice continued, he said, as was evident in Central Kalimantan last year. Many hot spots had also been found in palm oil plantations, which could lead to fires, stated Walhi. “Many areas have also experienced floods because of the conversion policy,” Rudi said, saying the worst floods occurred in Entikong, Sekayang, Beduai, Kembayan and other areas in Kalimantan last year, which caused some Rp 6 billion in losses.
Indonesian forest destruction has forged ahead unchecked because of various activities such as illegal logging, mining and the forest conversion policy. The annual rate of deforestation has been estimated at two million hectares annually, without any effective measures from the government to stop it. The government is currently assessing a conversion proposal of 30 million hectares of forest. Rudi said if the government did not stop its conversion policy, the country would continue to experience chronic natural disasters, such as forest fires and flooding. “Please don’t proceed with the plan to realize the ambition of becoming the world’s largest palm oil producer,” he said. At present, Indonesia is the second largest palm oil producer after Malaysia.
Citing a satellite image research on forest conversion into palm oil plantations in the Lake Sentarum area, researcher Sri Hardiyanti said the plantation areas had increased by 91,000 hectares over a period of only six years, from a mere 3,000 hectares in 1994 to 94,000 hectares in 2000. Besides a drastic increase in plantation area, several plantations around Lake Sentarum had also reached into protected forest areas, but with no legal measures being taken against the plantation company, she said. “The total forest area there has now rapidly reduced since 1994 by 205,000 hectares, from 528,300 hectares to 323,000 hectares,” she said. Around Mt. Mentarus, she said, some 43,000 hectares of forest had been made into plantations since 1994, enlarging the total area of plantations from 86,000 hectares to 129,000 hectares. In addition, the forest areas surrounding Mt. Mentarus had also shrunk by a total of 350,000 hectares, from 1,337,000 to 987,000 hectares, she said.