Friday, 8 February 2008

49,000 ha of illegal palm oil plantations to be slashed in Riau

49,000 ha of illegal palm oil plantations to be slashed in Riau

*Nation News - Friday, February 08, 2008*Rizal Harahap*,
The Jakarta Post,

The government will slash some 49,000 hectares of illegal palm oil plantations in protected forest areas in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau, allowing forests to reclaim cleared land, an official said Wednesday.

Rokan Hulu regent Achmad said the oil palms in the protected forest area, in Sungai Mahato and Bukit Sugili, would be destroyed because the plantation was developed without authorization.Conversion of protected forest into oil palm plantation and illegal logging practices have been rampant, he said, but no steps have been taken yet to stop perpetrators or plantation "owners"."

The public has to pay high costs for the illegal conversion of land, with the shrinking of water catchment areas which ends up causing flooding each year in the regency," he said."The rampant land conversion has also led to frequent attacks from protected animals, like elephants and Sumatran tigers, on locals and their farmland, after losing their habitat in protected forests," he said.

Achmad, who is still seven months in his tenure, said the reforestation program would be financed by the 2008 state budget, and supervised by relevant authorities to avoid financial malfeasance.

He said any farmers refusing to leave the protected area would be prosecuted because they would be breaking the 2004 law on the environment.It was tragic that most of the 32,000-ha Sungai Mahato forests and 31,000 Bukit Sugili forests had been cleared for plantations, which meant (protected) wildlife was forced to seek refuge in other forests nearby, Achmad said.Meanwhile, local activists have expressed their skepticism over the local government's commitment to regenerate the forest, saying the move would meet strong protests and resistance from local farmers.

Tropica non-government organization executive director Harizal Jalil said if the regent could execute the plan, it could be the first step toward regreening vast areas of barren land inside protected forests and national parks in the province."The problem is whether the plan gets executed or not. A strong commitment is needed from all sides to do this," he said.Executive director of the Environmental Forum in Riau, Jhony Setiawan Mundung, said a national movement was needed to support the reforestation of 300,000 hectares of cleared forests in the province.

"We are very eager to see if the regent can execute the plan, or if he is just talking," he said.The chief of palm oil affairs at the local plantation office, Hanafi, said he was pessimistic at the success of the plan because 8,000 farmers who worked on the plantation would stage a strong protest if the regent goes ahead.He said his office had never issued any permit to farmers to plant oil palm trees in protected