Sumatra burns-1


Activistssue forest-fire offenders

The Straits Times, 14 June 2003

Environmentaliststarget 20 firms that run huge plantations in Riau andlocal governments which ignore offendersBy Robert GoJAKARTA – 

Frustrated with the government’s failure year after year tocontrol haze-producing fires, Indonesian environmentalists are takingmatters into their own hands by filing lawsuits against offenders and localadministrations that fail to enforce anti-burning regulations. 
Mr Longgena Ginting, head of the environmental advocacy group Walhi, toldThe Straits Times his office would target as many as 20 private companiesthat run huge plantations in Riau and have been accused of burning foreststo clear land.Environmentalists will also drag into the courtroom local governmentswhich, they said, have largely ignored fires and failed to prosecute knownoffenders. 
Mr Longgena said: ‘It is about time we did something about this. Thegovernment’s track record in stopping fires is very poor. If we let thisgo, wewill see bigger fires.’Reports have emerged out of Riau and other parts of Indonesia over the pasttwo weeks about more fires in forest and plantation areas.In Riau province alone, Walhi has counted more than 1,300 hot spots orpossible fire locations. 
With the rainy season not expected until October, Indonesia and itsneighbours stand a good chance of being shrouded by unsightly,health-threatening smoke yet again.At a basic level, however, this is a bigger issue than fire prevention – itinvolves corruption, government inefficacy and general ignorance.On paper, Indonesia has fairly strong anti-burning laws.But Mr Longgena says more than 60 per cent of hot spots identified byexperts are located within large plantations cultivating sawit, or palm-oiltrees.These companies use fires to clear land as it is the cheapest method ofdoing so. 
And they are not afraid of breaking anti-burning laws as they may havesecured the cooperation of local government officials and judges.Walhi’s own track record against private companies is astonishingly poor.Over the past 30 years, it has won only one lawsuit against environmentaloffenders.Mr Longgena said: ‘Even when there is clear proof of wrongdoing, the judgesoften choose to question the evidence and rule for the defendants. There islittle logic to many of the court decisions, and there are enough reasonsto suspect they have been bribed.’According to Ms Liana Bratasidha, a deputy minister at the EnvironmentalAffairs Ministry, there is also a lack of coordination between thedifferent government agencies.The public, experts say, is also ignorant about the dangers of fires, andeven small-scale farmers often burn to prepare their land for planting.Government officials and environmentalists agree there is a crucial needfor Indonesia to change the way its environmental policies are formulated.


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