Tuesday, 1 September 2009

SpecialReport: Fires rage on amid poor law enforcement

Sat, 08/29/2009 2:10 PM | Special Report

Since 1997, Indonesia has been plagued by forest and land fires mostly taking place in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Thick haze from the fires has drawn significant criticism and protests against Indonesia from neighboring countries. However, the government is still unable to stop the forest fires from occurring every year during the dry season. The Jakarta Post's Adianto Simamora, Rizal Harahap, Jon Afrizal and Khairul Saleh from Jakarta, Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra respectively looked into this annual problem.

With no breakthroughs in law enforcement, land and forest fires have continued to rage across Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sulawesi islands as well as several parts of Java, as the repeated drive against slash and burn methods used to clear land have failed amid the current dry season.

The central government claims it had provided training on preventive measures for local people in fire-prone areas, months before the expected dry season.

"But, all the lessons were then forgotten when the dry season came. People returned to low-cost methods, clearing land with fire," State Ministry for the Environment forest and land destruction deputy assistant Heddy Mukna told The Jakarta Post this week.

"Land and forest fires continue to pose a massive problem because the poor law enforcement has no deterrent effect *on those starting them*."

The law on the environment only authorizes civilian investigators to seek explanations and evidence from individuals or companies. Any findings must be submitted to police, the only state agency authorized to arrest or detain suspects guilty of such offenses as starting bush fires.

Those found guilty of damaging the environment can face up to 10 years in prison and Rp 500 million (US$50,000) in fines.

"We want a special approach when dealing with environmental violators including in land and forest fires cases, otherwise slash and burn will remain a problem," Heddy said.

The ministry is currently investigating 14 companies in Riau and 11 firms in Central Java, in cases involving land and forest fires.

The investigating team detected hotspots in lands owned by 77 companies operating in Riau during the first seven months of the year.

The environment ministry has pledged to submit its findings on forest fires to police for legal action against any perpetrators showing a disdain for the environmental law.

The ministry has also unveiled a plan to fence off any burned land for use as evidence.

However, a source at the ministry admitted that the office was facing difficulties to enforce the law on forest burners because of budget limitations.

State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar has appealed to the governors and regents in fire-prone areas to stop all open burning activities and revoke bylaws allowing local farmers to carry out open burning.

The ministry also pledged to hand over financial aid to local farmers who could avoid open burning in their land.

Land and forest fires have ravaged thousands of hectares in Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra, North Sumatra and all Kalimantan provinces. The ministry detected about 7.064 hotspots during August alone.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia branch found that the hotspots in Riau province had continued to increase from 973 in January to 2,395 in July, the most of any province in Indonesia.

It reported about 52 percent of these hotspots were located on land belonging to local people, 31 percent were in managed forest areas (HTI) and the remaining 17 percent in plantation areas.

Riau and Kalimantan have been the most severely affected areas during the recent forest fires, which have caused repeated closures of airports and sent thousands of students home because of smoke and haze.

The national taskforce for handling disasters has planned to deploy helicopters to stop land the forest fires in Central Kalimantan.

"We will bring the police with us to arrest perpetrators we find in burned-out areas. This is part of our work to enforce the law," senior environmental official Soetrisno said.

Soetrisno said his office would also deploy helicopters to extinguish forest fires including those in Riau.

"But we will only provide help at the request of local administrations," he said.

Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban earlier said the government would only take firm action to control forests if haze disturbed flights and sparked protests in Malaysia and Singapore.

Analysts say the expected return of the El Ni*o phenomenon will cause massive forest fires, as it did in 2006, when fires ravaged more than 145,000 hectares of forests around Indonesia.

The Forestry Ministry has proposing around Rp 24 billion in the 2010 draft state budget in anticipation of imminent dry storms from El Nino.

Head of the forest fire unit at WWF Indonesia, Hariri Dedi, agreed that poor law enforcement and public awareness remained the main causes of repeated forest fires.

"However, the government's campaigns to stop the fires are still ineffective since no incentives have been provided to those avoiding using fires to clear land," he said.

"The government often only comes to the field after fires have ravaged the land and forests."