Thursday, 19 February 2009

No Suspects Yet in Riau Forest Fires

February 17, 2009 The Jakarta Globe

by Fidelis E. Satriastanti

The State Ministry for the Environment said on Monday that it still had no suspects in connection with the fires that have ravaged forests in Riau Province, despite allegations that the fires were deliberately set by private forestry firms.

Massive forest fires have been burning in industrial timber estates in the districts of Indragiri Hulu, Indragiri Hilir, Siak and Pelalawan since January, and the local government’s efforts to contain the flames have so far failed.

“We are still questioning a number of people,” said Ilyas Asaad, the deputy minister for environmental compliance. “But we do not have any suspects yet.”

Ilyas refused to name the people being questioned, but claimed that investigations were on the right track.

“We have been conducting field investigations and we have come to the conclusion that the fires were caused by human activities,” he said.

Local forestry firms are known to use fires to reduce forest cover in order to expand the area available for palm oil, wood pulp and rubber plantations.

According to the 1997 Law on Environmental Management, a party that deliberately causes environmental damage could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a Rp 500 million ($42,500) fine.

However, Johny Mundung, executive director of the Riau branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, or Walhi, said that the government had never been serious about dealing with the annual forest fires that cause heavy smoke pollution on Sumatra Island and in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

“The truth is the local government has not taken any significant legal approach to settle this matter once and for all,” he said.

Johny also criticized the local government for setting aside part of its yearly budget to combat the fires.

“It is ridiculous that they even allocate a budget for that every year,” he said. “That means they see the forest fires as some sort of annual project that they can look forward to.”

Johny said that more than 42,000 hectares of land, mostly peatland and rubber plantations, were affected by the fires this week, up from 32,000 hectares last week.

“The districts are affected by forest fires every year because they are dominated by peatland and rubber plantation areas,” he said.

“The investigators should investigate the companies that manage the land if they want to learn who started the fires.”

Johny also refuted a district head’s claim that the fires were not man-made.

“There is no way that the fires were induced by natural causes,” he said.

He said the haze from the forest fires was causing health problems among residents, many of whom have complained of vision-related problems and breathing difficulties.

According to the Pekanbaru office of the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, or BMG, 29 areas in Riau Province are at risk of being overrun by the flames.

The at-risk areas are also known as “hot spots.”

Meanwhile, the state-run Antara news agency reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite showed that there were 34 hot spots in the province.