Indonesia — THE carbon-rich peat forests of northern Sumatra are burning again as palm oil companies break Indonesian law to clear the land for their plantations.
Environmental groups have warned that the local population of critically endangered orang-utans are ”doomed” unless the fires are stopped.
Also, smoke from the burning is at times engulfing cities in Malaysia and Thailand, prompting doctors in Kuala Lumpur recently to warn residents with respiratory problems to wear masks.
Photographs from the Tripa peat forest in Aceh show widespread burning, which the head investigator of the Indonesian environment ministry, Syarifudin Akbar, estimates now covers almost 2000 hectares.
”This is a criminal case because the law says it’s a crime to open a land by burning,” Mr Akbar told the Herald.
Local environmentalists say the fires are lit by palm oil companies and threaten a population of about 200 orang-utans in this area – one of the densest populations in the world.
More than 3000 of the great apes once lived in the area that is being cleared. Now just 7000 live on the whole island of Sumatra, which has been hit in recent years with uncontrolled clearing of primary forests for palm oil plantations.
The latest fires were detected by satellites monitoring fire activity last week, and confirmed by field staff from local environmental groups.
The environment department, the national police and the government’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) taskforce are investigating.
A spokesman for the REDD taskforce, Achmad Santosa, agreed the forest burning was ”an issue of law enforcement” and that it was ”exactly the job of the REDD taskforce, that is to ensure the enforcement of the law”.
The head of the REDD taskforce, Kuntoro, visited Aceh yesterday to speak to the governor and check the situation on the ground.
But Kamaruddin, a lawyer for the Tripa community, said the investigations now under way were ”proving to be too little too late”, and called for the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to get involved.
”These companies simply have to be ordered to stop [clearing] immediately and that order to be strictly enforced, otherwise the peat forests and inhabitants of Tripa will be lost forever,” he said.
Dr Yudhoyono has won global applause for pro-conservation statements, the most recent at the Rio+20 summit, where he said: ”deforestation is a thing of the past” and that ”losing our tropical rainforests would constitute the ultimate national, global and planetary disaster”.
But this has not stopped the annual ”burning season” of forests in Borneo and Sumatra – nor the smoke haze over Asia – as companies take advantage of dry weather to prepare the ground for new plantations.
”Despite all these words and statements and speeches about conserving orang-utans and peat lands and reducing carbon emissions the evidence is there has been no change,” said the director of conservation at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, Ian Singleton.
Part of the area being burnt is owned by the palm oil company PT Kallista Allam, which was granted a concession now under challenge in the Indonesian courts. The former Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf said he had granted the concession as a wake-up call to the international community over its inaction on a carbon pricing mechanism in Indonesian forests.
However, a company spokesman told the Herald that the fire had blown into their area from a neighbouring concession. The owner of that land, PT Agro Maju Raya, could not be contacted.