Indonesia: A Burning Issue

A Burning Issue

(Source: Tempo, No. 44/IV / 6-12 July 2004 )

By Juli Mantoro, Jupernalis (Riau) 

An entrepreneur has been declared a suspect for illegally burning forests in Riau—but no one has yet been arrested.

Thick smoke originating from the burning of land plots and forests has again engulfed Riau Province. Children are barred from going outdoors, masks are worn, infectious respiratory diseases are threatening, aviation routes are disturbed — just because visibility has receded to 500 meters. Embarrassingly, the detestable smoke has also drifted to neighboring countries, prompting condemnations of all sorts. Tragically, this calamity reoccurs every year.

Fortunately, there has been some heartening news. A combined team of the Department for the Environment, National Police Headquarters, and the Attorney General’s Office on Friday two weeks ago succeeded in arresting Angker Dahlan Silalahi, 57, owner of a contractor company, PT Anderson Unedo. Silalahi is suspected of being responsible for the burning of hundreds of hectares of land plots and forest in the vicinity of Delima village, West Minas District, Bengkalis Regency, Riau.

According to Chief of Riau’s Environmental Impact Agency, Khairul Zainal, the well-known Riau businessman was nabbed after the agency had traced the origin of the fires in Riau. Among the 5,256 flashpoints observed on June 22, one at Minas area drew the team’s attention. “The flashpoint in the area indicates that the burning of the land was deliberate,” said Zainal.

Headed straight to the location, the team found a blackened stretch of land emitting smoke. From several people at the site, the team seized a written contract for the clearing of 100 hectares of land at a cost of Rp650,000 per hectare. “The team found that 1,200 hectares more were scheduled to be burned,” said Zainal. Other pieces of evidence found were a heap of cut-up used tires, a stack of wood, one excavator, and 40,000 palm seedlings ready for planting. 

The land appeared to belong to Angker Silalahi. During investigation, according to Zainal, Silalahi admitted that the land was his property. In front of the investigation team, the businessman who is also engaged in oil exploration claimed to be the foster-father of 150 migrant families living in the burned area. It is public knowledge that plantation owners are accustomed to clearing forestland by setting it ablaze. It is cheaper than any other method. Upon completion of the day-long investigation, the team declared Silalahi a suspect. The father of six was initially put into the custody of the Riau Police, then bundled off to Jakarta for further interrogation. He will be charged under Law No. 41/1999 on Forestry, facing a prison term of up to 10 years and a fine of Rp10 billion, as well as under Law No. 23/1997 on the Environment which stipulates up to 10 years jail and up to Rp150 billion fine.

The exhilarating news was followed right on the heels, however, by a confusing statement from the Riau Police. Asst. Sen. Comr. S. Pandingan, spokesman for the Riau Police, denied that the police had been given custody of a suspect in the case.

“Up to this day the Riau Police have not detained any suspect related to the haze case,” he told TEMPO. Joshua Hutapea, Silalahi’s lawyer, for his part also refuted the allegation.

Joshua said the report on Silalahi’s arrest was a big lie. “My client has never been arrested and detained,” he stated. He said the burned land was not his client’s property. The land was owned by migrant residents who asked Joshua to be their foster parent and Silalahi to invest his money in land clearing, planting and management, up to the post-harvest period. In return, Silalahi would be given two-thirds of the land owned by the residents.

Joshua’s statement, however, was refuted by the Director of Specific Crimes at National Police HQ, Brig. Gen. Suharto. Based on the results of preliminary investigations, the police are convinced that it was Silalahi who ordered the burning of the land. Silalahi was indeed arrested, Suharto said, but has now been released. He did not give specifics, though. Executive Director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) in Riau, Rully Syumanda, was not surprised at the fact that police had difficulty catching the culprit in the forest burning case. In Walhi’s notes, there has never been a forest burning case that ended with maximum penalty. “For example the forest burning case in 1997. The culprit got off with only 13 months imprisonment. Even that left a question as to its execution,” Syumanda added. 

Suharto promised, though, to solve this case as soon as possible. Hopefully so—we have become tired of being made the target of neighbors’ curses.

AsiaViews, Edition: 26/I/July/2004 


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