Firms doubt data on forest fires as Govt investigation underway

Firms doubt data on forest fires as Govt investigation underway

02 July 2013

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Indonesia — The investigation into the land and forest fires in Sumatra is far from over, but preliminary findings suggest that they may implicate several firms that possess forest concessions and oil palm plantations.

Although government officials refused to divulge any details, they confirmed that among those named suspects by the police had been caught setting fires in areas owned by both domestic companies and companies from haze-affected Singapore and Malaysia.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwonugroho said the police had named 18 suspects as of Friday, including one person who was caught burning an area belonging to forest concessionaire PT Arara Abadi – a subsidiary of PT Sinar Mars Agro resources and Technology (SMART).

The managing director of the Sinar Mas Group, Gandi Sulistyanto, said, however, that the arrest was solid proof that Sinar Mas was clean of any allegations, particularly as the arrest was made following a report by the company.

Sinar Mas claims it has practiced a non-burning policy since 1996.

“He [the suspect] may have thought that by burning the area he could take it over,” Sulistyanto said.

A total of 75 hot spots had destroyed palm plantation and forest concession areas owned by the group, Sulistiyanto admitted, but most of the fires were caused by sparks from other fires on local plantations that quickly spread to other areas.

SMART, a subsidiary of Golden Agri-Resources Ltd (GAR), one of the largest palm-based companies in the world that is listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, had previously been accused by Greenpeace in 2010 of deforestation that threatened the orangutan population.

Consequently, Nestlé and a number of other buyers, including Unilever, have suspended future purchases of crude palm oil (CPO) from SMART.

“No big company nowadays wants to slash-and-burn their land as the fires can rapidly spread to [and destroy] producing plants,” he told The Jakarta Post over the weekend.

Environmental groups, however, have blamed agricultural and forestry firms, with Greenpeace saying on its website that palm plantation companies had to be held responsible.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) reported that as many as 117 companies might be implicated.

Greenomics Indonesia said in a release last week that 1,106 fires had been detected in concession areas owned by at least 57 companies granted industrial forest permits (HTI) and oil palm plantations, adding that 30 of the companies were HTI holders owned by or affiliated with the Sinar Mas Forestry Group and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) in Riau, while the remaining 27 were palm oil companies.

RAPP spokesman Djarot Handoko denied reports that his company was involved in burning forest areas, adding that not only had the company practiced a no-burning policy for more than a decade but also that it had actively teamed up with local residents to extinguish the fires.

A commissioner with Singapore-based Wilmar, MP Tumanggor, said that despite insufficient proof, the statements and releases from officials and environmental organizations had one-sidedly put all the blame on companies, especially those originating from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

“None of the fires occurred in our plantation areas; we are wholly clear of any of the allegations. We are a dignified RSPO [Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil] member that does not practice illegal ground-clearing as that would only hurt our reputation and encroach on the oil palm trees we have tended for years,” Tumanggor said.

Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister and Justice Minister K. Shanmugam recently said that the city-state’s government would do anything it could to help with the investigation and act against any companies proved to be complicit.

The Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta’s press attaché, Raja Nizam, said merely that Malaysian companies were RSPO members whose standards included a no-burning policy, declining to comment further on the issue when contacted by The Jakarta Post.

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