Burning Questions

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3 July 2013 08:31 WIB

A firefighter attempts to put out the fire in a peatland forest in Rumbai Pesisir, Riau. AP/Rony

The problem with our haze has become critical. The yearly forest fires strongly suspected to have been started deliberately in almost the same locations numbering in the hundreds, come from the same plantation companies. Yet nothing at all has been done about it. The haze from the resulting harmful smoke recurs, again and again.


The majority of the hotspots are in the provinces of Riau and Sumatra, from where the smoke has spread uncontrollably. In Dumai last week, the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) reached 900. This is far above the danger le-vel. Inhaled smoke particles can cause harm to cells in the respiratory tract and can cause acute infections. The thick smoke has also smothered Johor, Malaysia, where the PSI has reached 500. Tens of thousands of students in Malaysia and Singapore have had to be sent home from school.


Unfortunately we have acted too defensively in the face of protests from neighboring states. Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik called for Malaysia and Singapore not to make such a fuss over the smoke. Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono accused their governments of childish behavior. These unseemly comments clearly do nothing to solve the problem and could make matters worse.


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono added to the hubbub. He apologized to Singapore and Malaysia but forgot to apologize to the people of Riau, who have also been choked by the smoke. Instead of naming the eight corporations owned by Malaysian businessmen alleged to be behind the fires according to his advisers he seemed to be 'angered' by the findings.


However, there are legal instruments that could be used against the people burning the forests, namely Law No. 18/2004 on Forestry, and Government Regulation No. 35/2004 on the Protection of Forests. Setting forest fires, by individuals or companies can lead to a 10-year jail term and a fine of Rp10–15 billion. However the enforcement of this law has been non-existent, perhaps deliberately.


For more than a decade, we have been a 'producer' of haze from the burning forests, but no single case has been taken to court for this crime. Forestry companies acting illegally have been conveniently ignored. Even if prosecutions have been carried out, they only touched the small fry on the ground. However, according to the Palm Oil Watch NGO, major plantation companies usually pay people to clear the land. The large target areas, tight deadlines and low-value contracts all lead to the most practical solution: burning the forests.


The government should keep a much closer watch on the forestry and plantation sector. On the ground, there are many ways to get around permits and signs. The revelation of bribes paid by Hartati Murdaya to Buol Regent Amran Batalipu shows that the plantation industry is rife with illegal practices. In 2011, Robin Burgess from the London School of Economics released research on the links between local politics and deforestation in Indonesia. In conservation areas, the rate of deforestation increases by 40 percent in the year leading up to elections of regional heads, and then drops by 57 percent over the following year. It is believed that deforestation is linked to the sale of plantation permits by regents.


Because of this environmental disaster, Indonesia's credibility as the world's largest exporter of palm oil, with annual crude palm oil production of 22 million tons, is unquestionably at risk. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international forum known for its firm stance and adherence to sustainable oil palm management, is bound to investigate the haze. In 2012, Unilever and Nestle (both members of the RSPO) refused to buy palm oil produced by Sinar Mas, which stands accused of ignoring environmental protection.


Palm oil is like tempting green gold. According to a 2011 Reuters survey, Indonesian palm oil production costs were US$300 per ton of CPO. Compare this with Malaysia, with production costs of US$400-500 per ton, and Africa at US$600-800 per ton of CPO. With the price of crude palm oil at around US$1,000 per ton, the potential profits are very tempting. Unfortunately, these low production costs do not go hand in hand with proper palm oil management. Plantations are cleared by local people who have been misled into taking the blame of burning the land. They do not care that their carelessness wrecks the environment.


Some believe that all this haze is a result of intense competition by global corporations within the RSPO. But what is the use in being trapped in such a conspiracy? It would be more dignified and productive to improve the chaotic management of plantations and forests. Serious reforms are needed, in particular by conducting a thorough and complete investigation of companies that fraudulently obtain permits and that burn forests. All the regulations in place must be enforced, and there must be heavy punishment for those who break them.



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This commentary is part of a cover story of the July 3-10 edition of Tempo English Weekly. In stands now.



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