Few answers to the burning question

Few answers to the burning question

21 November 2006

published by www.nst.com.my

Indonesia wants to halve forest fires next year, but green activists fear corruption will derail that plan, 
writes AMY CHEW.

The weather is hot as Dr Bambang Hero Saharjo collects soil samples and debris in a burnt-out forest in Riau, Sumatra, clues which could point to the perpetrators of the massive fires which sent fumes to large parts of Indonesia and the region. The haze cleared only days ago to allow the last of the closed airports in Kalimantan to reopen.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed,” Mahatma Gandhi once said.

As Bambang, a fire investigator, hunts for evidence to bring the arsonists to justice, he is reminded of that greed.

The scorched earth stretches for kilometres on end, testifying to the destruction of thousands of hectares of forest and peat land in Sumatra and Kalimantan, much of it by corporations.

Bent on maximising profit, corporations, including Malay-sian and Singaporean firms working with local partners, use fire to clear land for oil palm and timber plantations.

“It costs 2-3 million rupiah per hectare to clear the land by burning. If machinery is used, it will cost 20-30 million per hectare,” said Bambang, add- ing that corporations could still reap profits if they used machinery instead of fire.

Malaysian companies have denied they were behind the fires.

With a doctorate in forestry from Kyoto University, Japan, Bambang is one of Indonesia’s two fire experts.

His testimony can make a big difference to the outcome of court cases involving big corporations charged with setting the fires.

“I often receive threatening text messages from companies. On other occasions, I have people coming to my house or to the university where I teach. There have been times when I had to hide my wife and children,” he said.

Still, the quiet, unassuming Bambang presses on, believing his work will reduce the pillaging of the environment.

“If more corporations are convicted, the rest will be less bold in burning the land,” he said.

His work hazards highlight Indonesia’s difficulties in stopping the fires as they involve big corporations with the means to grease the palms of local officials to secure land permits.

Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has said he hoped to reduce the fires by 50 per cent next year.

However, green activists doubt that target can be achieved given widespread corruption in the bureaucracy.

Many of these corporations operate with impunity, ignoring the legal requirements to protect the environment.

The fires can also be blamed on the poverty of small farmers, whose only means of clearing land is by burning.

Nazir Foead, World Wide Fund for Nature director of policy and corporate engagement, said: “Fires are used by large corporations and traditional farmers. Big corporations have the means to pay or machinery and there is no excuse.”

The vast geographical area also makes it difficult for law enforcement officers to catch the perpetrators.

The devolution of power to local governments, which gives them the right to issue permits to land hungry corporations, exacerbates the problem.

Driven by the desire to increase revenue, local authorities issue permits with little regard for the ecosystem, increasing the likelihood of fires and accelerating deforestation.

“Regional autonomy resulted in the out-of-control issuance of permits by the regencies.

“Each licence is for 100 hectares. Some issued 100-200 licences,” said Fauzi Mashud, spokesman for the Forestry Ministry. There are some 400 regencies in the country.

“In 2000, when regional autonomy was first implemented, 1.2 million hectares of land were degraded. By the end of 2004, the figure had almost doubled to 2.3 million. At the end of 2005, the figure stood at 2.9 million hectares,” said Mashud.

In 2003, Jakarta recentralised the authority to issue land permits.

The country’s forests stand at 120 million hectares. However, years of illegal logging and open burning had destroyed and degraded 59 million hectares, he said.

The forest fires catapulted Indonesia to the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China, according to an international study.

Indonesia is projected to release two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, mostly from the burning of the country’s peat lands, unlike the US and China, whose greenhouse gases come from the burning of fossil fuels.

The emission of carbon dioxide has been blamed for global warming, which is projected to increase droughts, floods and sea levels. In Indonesia, green activists have complained of prolonged dry seasons, as parts of the country are undergoing.

Environmentalists say protecting and rehabilitating the country’s 21 million hectares of peat land is crucial to reducing the annual fires and carbon dioxide emissions.

Nazir said: “Peat land, in its natural state, is waterlogged. It acts as a firebreaker in the forests.”

But as the country opens up peat land for agriculture, timber plantations and concessions, water is drained from peat using canals, rendering the soil highly combustible.

Soil from peat land contains carbon accumulated from thousands of years. Indonesian peat lands are estimated to contain 125 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

“Therefore, when peat land is burned, it releases smoke. The fires are also difficult to put out as it burns several metres beneath the surface,” he said.

In central Kalimantan, 1.5 million hectares of peat were stripped bare during Suharto’s rule under his grandiose scheme to turn the land over to padi farming and make the country self-sufficient in rice. The plan failed and the exposed peat is now a tinder box during the dry season.

WWF says the government needs to restore water to peat lands by jamming the canals with logs.

In central Kalimantan, only one non-governmental organisation, Wetlands International Indonesia, is working to rehabilitate the peat land with funds from the Canadian International Development Agency since 2003.

WWF warns that unless the government conserves existing peat lands and restore water to degraded ones, it will be difficult to reduce the fires.

Uneven law enforcement in the regencies contributes to the difficulties in stopping the fires.

Bambang said: “The police are strict in some regencies but are not so in others. If everyone is consistent, it will take five years at the earliest to reduce the fires to a low level.”

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