Saturday, 5 September 2009

Slash & burn persists

Slash & burn persists

Small farmers have no incentives to change; plantations stick with cheap and easy way

By Salim Osman, Indonesia Correspondent

PEKANBARU (Riau): INDONESIA'S battle against slash-and-burn agriculture seems to have stalled, raising the prospect that Singapore and other neighbours may have to live with bouts of choking haze for years to come, regional officials and environmentalists warn.

Jakarta has worked to train villagers in fire-prone areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan to practise 'zero burning' with the goal of 'zero haze'. 'But it appears to have had little effect, as people still turn to slash-and-burn methods to clear land during the dry season,' said environmentalist Zulfahmi of Greenpeace Indonesia.

One problem is that there are no incentives for small-time farmers to abandon the age-old practice. The government has not provided them with the mechanical equipment they could use to clear land for planting without burning.

But big, wealthy plantation companies also continue to use the cheap and easy method of land clearing because the ban against open burning is not being strictly enforced.

Thus, forest and land fires have ravaged thousands of hectares in Sumatra and Kalimantan, many of them on land belonging to oil palm plantation and paper-and-pulp companies.

'These fires take place in areas spanning more than 2ha,' says Mr Hariansyah Usman, the executive director of environmental group Walhi Riau. 'That goes to show that claims that the fires were started mainly by local residents, namely farmers, are just not true.'

While the government has effectively punished small-time farmers, companies with larger land concessions continue to get away with it.

Under the current environmental laws, the only action civilian investigators can take is to seek explanations and evidence from individuals or companies, and to report them to the police for prosecution. Those found guilty of damaging the environment can be jailed for up to 10 years and fined as much as 500 million rupiah (S$70,000).

The Indonesian government hopes to amend the laws to give the Environment Ministry powers to punish both companies that start fires and regional governments that fail to stop the burning. It has also pledged to supply poor communities with mechanical land-clearing equipment.

The Riau administration appears to be powerless to tackle forest fires, mainly because of a lack of money and technical expertise. The province was hit hard by recent forest fires in July and August. The resulting haze closed the airport in Pekanbaru for three days and resulted in thousands of students being sent home.