Indonesia — Recurrent forest and peatlands fires in Riau have been blamed on weak law enforcement. Estate companies and residents who set fire to forest areas to clear land often escape justice, so there are no deterrents.
Riau chapter Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) executive director Hariansyah Usman said nature was also a major factor in Riau’s forest and peatlands fires.
“But it is impossible for peat to burn by itself without someone igniting fire to clear land on a large scale. Most of the fires take place in areas spanning more than 2 hectares, which discounts arguments that fires are dominantly carried out by local residents.”
Hariansyah blames weak law enforcement and unresolved cases for the recurring forest fires, which started early this year.
He said the Riau Police’s determination to stamp out illegal logging and forest-burning during police chief’s Sutjiptadi’s tenure in 2007 has not been continued by his successors.
“A different police chief would have different policies. As long as the law is not enforced, the chances of a haze-free Riau is slim.”
Hariansyah said tracing the party responsible for the forest fires would be easy because most of the land in Riau was privately-owned.
“Each year police always conduct target investigations into a number of companies, but so far none have been reprimanded despite hot spots found in their concession areas. Environmental crime will prevail without stern consequences to serve as a deterrent.”
Head of the Forest Fire Mitigation division at the Riau Forestry Office Nurjaya said almost 80 percent of fires in Riau since early this year took place in areas with clear ownership status.
Nurjaya said the forestry office had questioned 43 companies holding industrial forest licenses, forest concession areas and oil palm plantations because they were indicated to have burned forested areas to clear land or left their areas burning. A number of companies have responded and explained the fires in their concession areas.
“Investigation is the police’s responsibility. We once assisted police by arresting people who had set fire, but after handing them over to police, they were released,” he said.
A joint team from the forestry office recently caught three residents who were starting a fire and admitted to have received Rp 50,000 per day from the land owner. They were handed over to the nearest police in Dumai, along with evidence.
“Police immediately named them suspects, but two days later they were released. They should have been used to trace their financiers,” Nurjaya said.
Walhi’s South Sumatra director Anwar Sadat said the government’s efforts to combat forest fires were still sporadic and lacked commitment and a clear concept.
“No plantation company in South Sumatra is entitled to the zero burning status.”
Walhi has also indicated the unfair stance of the authorities, evident from the various reports on violations committed by estate companies that have never been processed, while residents are subject to immediate arrests for burning areas within restricted zones.
“The authorities have never followed up with our reports, while residents are prone to arrests because they are being paid by companies,” Anwar said.