Activists warn of huge forest fires should El Niño occur

 Activists warn of huge forest fires should El Niño occur

18 July 2009

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Indonesia — With severe drought predicted later in the year, environmental activists are urging the government to take swift action to prevent resulting huge forest fires.

WWF Indonesia and Forest Watch Indonesia said Friday the government should warn forestry companies, plantations and local people living near forests to stop slash-and-burn methods to clear the land.

“Otherwise, we will suffer again from large-scale forest fires during the El Niño phenomenon this year,” the WWF’s Hariri Dedi told The Jakarta Post.

“One thing’s for sure: this year, we’ll have far more forest and land fires than in 2007 and 2008. The peak will be between September and October.”

Hariri warned this year’s El Niño would last longer and cause a more severe dry season.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon associated with warmer tropical waters in the Pacific Ocean. It occurs once every two to five years and lasts about 12 months. Indonesia suffered from the phenomenon in 2002 and 2006.

WWF detected about 31,648 forest fire hotspots in 2007 and 32,838 in 2008. To date this year, it has detected 9,841 forest fire hotspots, mostly in Riau (4,581 hotspots) and West Kalimantan (1,010).

Hariri said 50 percent of the hotspots were spread over farmland owned by locals, while a third were in forest concessions. The rest are in plantations.

He said forestry companies and plantations usually took advantage of the dry season to clear-cut forests.

“Such slash-and-burn practices occur repeatedly during the dry season, but no big names are jailed as a deterrent to stop forest fires,” he said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned Thursday of the return of El Niño, which could cause a long drought running from September 2009 to February 2010.

Yudhoyono said the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) would monitor the development of El Niño.

Forest fires are an annual incident across the country during the dry season. In 2006, 145,000 hotspots were detected, making it the second-worst season since 1997.

In 1997, forest fires turned Indonesia into the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
In 2006, the government had to apologize to Singapore and Malaysia for record levels of air pollution in those countries caused by the haze.

Wirendro Sumargo, public campaign and policy dialogue coordinator at Forest Watch Indonesia, said the government was not yet serious about completely wiping out forest fires.

“The government must step up supervision in the field and impose stricter punishment on violators; otherwise, zero forest fires will remain a big dream,” he said.

“It’s not difficult to determine the perpetrators of forest fires, if only the government had the will. It’s simple, by showing the areas in the map.”

Wirendro also warned many such perpetrators were attempting to shift the blame for forest fires to the higher temperatures brought about by global warming.

“Don’t blame El Niño for causing forest fires,” he said.

“We wouldn’t have fires unless people burned land.”

State Minister for National Development Planning Paskah Suzetta told Antara that El Niño would raise the state budget deficit by 1.5 to 1.7 percent.

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