May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Smoking gun

Published: Sep 30, 2007

The fires were no natural disaster, says JOKO WALUYO. The smoking gun is in the hands of plantation companies.

When I went to Kalimantan and saw that local government and business were doing nothing concrete to deal with the fires, I felt very emotional. They only used a few water bombing aircraft to put out these huge fires, and even those were loaned by neighbouring countries. When we were in the million hectare development project in Central Kalimantan, amidst the burning peat, it felt like we were in hell. It was impossible to get closer than 100 metres to the fire.

Our investigations in the field as well as satellite photos show that these forest fires were man-made. Ninety percent of them occurred in areas with rubber and palm-oil plantations, production forest plantations (HTI), and new transmigration projects.

The government tended to limit information getting out about the extent of the fires. Even the press was not game to speak about who started them. Walhi opened special offices in the affected areas to distribute information about the danger of smoke and to hand out face masks.

Clearing land

Opening up new land involves first of all land clearing, then planting, cultivating, and harvesting. They clear land by chopping down the trees, slashing undergrowth, and then burning the waste. When a company applies to the bank for credit they put down burning off as a cost component. At the moment they budget Rp 1 million (AU$ 4,000) to clear a hectare of land, and set aside a tenth of that for burning off. If they were to use other methods of course it would become more expensive.

In 1982-83 more than 3.7 million hectares of forest were burned, and the fires are repeated every year. But till now the government has not wanted to learn from their experience, for instance by banning the use of fire in land clearing. Walhi has been campaigning against it since 1983, but we have had no reaction from the government.

By the end of September over 1.7 million hectares had been burned, at a loss to the economy of Rp 6.2 trillion (AU$ 2.4 billion). The biggest area was burned by plantation companies. Yet they are doing almost nothing about it. The companies said they were contributing Rp 20 billion (AU$ 7 million) to a fund to help victims of the fires, but it is quite unclear where this money went, who handled it, who received it.

Only 3,000 hectares of that area belonged to small farmers (see table). Yet some still continued to blame them as the main cause of the fires. Company owners say fires from traditional farmers spread accidentally to their plantations. But in reality the traditional farmers do their burning in the interior, far from the plantations and production forests.

Area affected by fire July-September 1997

Production forest 578,000 ha
Conservation area 45,000 ha
Large plantations 798,000 ha
Peat area (C Kal) 260,000 ha
New transmigration areas 30,000 ha
Small farmers 3,000 ha
Total 1,714,000 ha

This cheap method of waste disposal has a severe impact on biodiversity and the fertility of the soil. Tropical forests only have 30 cm of top soil, which is easily washed away by rain once it is exposed.

Drought caused by the El Nino effect should not be blamed for these fires. The effect can now be predicted. It may have made the fires worse but it didn't start them.

Bad policy

A more important factor is the absence of strict regulations against clearing land by fire. The fires demonstrate how bad forest policy has been in Indonesia thus far. The government should put a complete ban on the use of fire, not only by forestry concession holders but also by plantation owners, miners, transmigration contractors, and anyone else who uses forested areas, including traditional farmers. There should be strict supervision.

We must be much more serious about these fires. Waiting for the rains to come at the end of November is not good enough. We have Rp 4 trillion (AU$ 1.5 billion) in the Reforestation Fund. Why not use that? And the government should ban all further expansion of the plantation sector. Plantations don't make such a large contribution to the economy and only increase the rate of deforestation, now running at 2.4 million hectare per annum.

Withdrawing the logging licence from these companies was meant to give the impression of tough action, but in fact it has no legal consequences. The companies simply go on working their plantations, production forests or new transmigration areas. And they can apply for a new logging licence.

They should be taken to court. The new Environment Law (no 23/ 1997) permits anyone in society to sue environmental destroyers. Clearing land by means of fire is an environmental crime.

Joko Waluyo is coordinator for forest advocacy with Walhi, Indonesia's premier environmental umbrella group. Contact Walhi at: Jl Mampang Prapatan XV/41, Jakarta 12790, Indonesia, tel +62-21-799 4394 or 794 1672, fax 794 1673, email

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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