Indonesia’s Perennial Forest Fires

Indonesia’s Perennial Forest Fires

3 October 2005

published by TEMPO Magazine 

Indonesia — Many cases of forest fires in Sumatra have failed to make it to court. Why aren’t satellite images of the hotspots being used to prosecute the lawbreakers?

The day had just begun when the cellular phones of Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban’s staffers started to ring. Foreign correspondents based in Malaysia were calling to inquire about forest fires in Indonesia, the smoke from which was then descending on cities in the neighboring country.

Kaban acknowledged forest fires were raging in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Last month more than 1,000 hotspots were detected in Sumatra, a third of them in the province of Riau. Until last week several hotspots were still smoldering in Pangkalan Bun in Kalimantan.

The hotspots were shown on NOAA satellite images obtained by the National Aviation and Space Agency. “It’s quite worrying,” said Louisa Tuhatu, Communications Director of The Nature Conservancy Indonesia. The satellite images also showed similar hotspots burning in Sarawak and Sabah.

Many non-governmental organizations, including Jikalahari, Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Eyes on the Forest, Forest Watch, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wild Fund for Nature have asked the government to act against forest concessionaires and plantation owners responsible for the forest fires. Rully Syumanda, Walhi coordinator for Riau, said most of the forest fires in the province originated from private and government plantations. He said eight of these plantations were Malaysian-owned.

The government is having difficulty holding the plantation owners responsible for the fires. Environment Minister Rahmat Witoelar said poor governance had made it difficult to identify the lawbreakers. Hard evidence is required, and satellite images alone are not considered satisfactory. “We have to find the person who set the forests on fire,” said Khairul Zaenal, head of the Riau Environmental Impact Supervisory Agency. This, he added, was despite the fact that under the Plantation Law forest concessionaries are responsible for the maintenance of land under their control. 


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