Inherited Sin from Government Failure to Secure People’s Right to their Environment.
During the El Nino disaster in 1997/98 twenty five million hectares of forest burnt around the world. Since then society is more aware that forest fires can obstruct development due to the enormous impact on the ecosystem through carbon emission increases and loss of biological diversity. More than 2.67 billion tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere by the fires in 1997/98. This is equal to 40 percent of total carbon emissions for the world that year.
This briefing paper is a summary of reports on forest and land fires in Indonesia from 2001 to July 2006.
The causes of the Indonesian fires in 1997/98 were various . In Jambi and Riau, fires were started by oil palm plantation concessionaires. In South Sumatra, fires were started in damp terrain by small farmers. In South Kalimantan, the One Million Hectares of Rice Project had become the main cause of smoke exported to Malaysia and Singapore. In West and East Kalimantan, fires were caused oil palm plantations and forest concession holders. Although the El Nino weather system created the drought, the widespread smog and enormous carbon emissions were both caused by fires lit intentionally to clear forests for plantation development.
In the following years, forest and land fires in Indonesia were not as massive as in 1997. But the annual fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra continue to generate smog that blankets southern Southeast Asia and release large amounts of carbon.
In 2001, the number of fires or hotspots recorded by satellite in Sumatra and Kalimantan from January to August was very low – only 3,200. The annual number of fires since 2002 has consistently been between 40,000 and 50,000. Riau Province holds the record for the highest number of fires, followed by central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan and South Sumatra.
Hotspot is the title given to NOAA satellite imaging product to shows the number of forest fires in a given area. The NOAA satellite is 850 Km above the earth and circles every 100 minutes. Data from NOAA can be received almost every day. The Control Center for Forest and Land Fires (Pusdakarhutla) in every province has direct access to NOAA satellite data. The public can receive hotspot information two days after the fires are documented.
NOAA is equipped with an Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer. AVHRR determines surface temperatures by detecting short infrared rays. Each hotspot pixel is 1.2 km by 1.1 km, and is a minimum temperature of 420º C in daytime and 370º C at nighttime. In cloudy conditions, hotspot detection is not possible.
Hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan
Source: Tabulated from NOAA satellite, Dbase WALHI 2006
Table 1. Number of Hotspots July 2001 – May 2006 in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
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A hotspot reading of 420º Celsius during the day in a given area is impossible to obtain if that area does not include a large fire. Heat reflection off a large factory roof during the middle of the day will not produce heat of more than 257º Celsius. The total area of burnt forest and land in Indonesia for the last six months (January to August 2006) is 27,612 mill acres [I don’t believe this number. In hectares this is 10 million hectares!] . The average area burnt each year since 2002 is 2 million hectares.
Forest burning is a regular practice used by forestry and plantation companies in Indonesia. It’s entitled in the name of burning, not fire or conflagration, because the fires are deliberately started. Indonesian forest includes damp rain forest which cannot be burnt accidentally. In many cases, the burnt regions are in preparation process for plantation development. Uncontrollable fire often spreads from plantation areas to secondary forest. Destructive logging also creates the condition for wild fires, by breaking the forest canopy so that sunlight enters the forest, and by leaving a lot of dead plant matter on the forest floor.
Forest burning is a result of errors of forest and land policy and management in Indonesia. This inherited sin began in 1980s, when large scale plantation industry were first established and used forest burning to clear areas for plantations. Since then, dry season forest fires are a regular event.
Forest and land burning and worsening natural forest health is the result of massive forest exploitation since the 1980s. This blunder of forest management has become the main cause for natural forest damage including forest and land fires.
At least three chronic forest management errors in Indonesia stimulate forest fire practice. Firstly there is a large gap between supply and demand; natural forest and forest concession only supply 25% of the demand for industrial wood from wood processing industries, which require 60 million m3 per year. This happened when the government allowed too many wood processing factories to be established without a sustainable wood supply from natural forests or plantations.
Secondly, big opportunities were given by the government to concessionaires to convert forests into large scale monoculture plantations such as oil palm and pulp wood plantations. The government also created conversion incentives by giving IPK (Forest Concession License) to plantation entrepreneurs and Reforestation Fund to concessionaires.
Thirdly, law enforcement has failed to control the illegal practice of using fire to clear forest land for plantation establishment. For plantation companies, fire is an easy and quick way to prepare land for plantations, and with minimal law enforcement, there was no reason for companies to stop this destructive practice.
Forest and land burning is also seen by companies as the easiest way to soil pH and make the soil more productive. About half of the soils in Kalimantan and Sumatra have a pH range of between 3 – 4 which is too low for agriculture. By burning forests with low pH soils, the residue ashes will raise soil pH up to 5 – 6 so cultivation will be possible. PT. Adei Plantation & Industry admitted in court that one reason it set fire to its concession area was to raise the soil pH level.
El Nino is related with forest drought and fire. However, it is important to underline that El Nino is not the cause of forest fires, but rather as necessary condition in forest and land fire. The attempt by government and industry to blame traditional swidden farming, in which small areas of secondary forest are burnt in a regular cycle, for the widespread fires is also wrong. Even in high El Nino years, swidden fires did not spread widely through the forest.
Since 2001 it has been acknowledged that fires started on lands belonging to the inhabitants only reached 20 percent from the total of burnt areas. Within that 20 percent, less half were occurred on farm lands using swidden agriculture or shifting cultivation system. The remaining fires caused by inhabitants occurred on abandoned logging areas.
Hotspot region in Sumatra-Kalimantan 2001 – 2003
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Government policy has denied society’s rights to access and control activities on their customary land, and has led to conflicts between communities on one side and government and concessionaires on the other side. These conflicts over land, which can harm both parties, are often left unresolved. Fair mediation or compensation is rare to impossible for communities to obtain, as the government typically takes the side of the concessionaire in land disputes.
The evidence that plantation concession areas were cleared with fire can be observed from indications in the field. Without having to discover a can of gasoline and a match or lighter, seeing piles of wood and debris in rows already indicates that the particular concession holder is preparing to use fire to clear the land. This method of piling up debris to be burnt is often used by concessionaires as one way to minimize the risk of fire spreading to adjacent areas. Several plantations in Sumatra or Kalimantan practice this method. Timbers up to 20 cm in diameter, along with other debris are stacked in rows.
The use of this method destroys the argument from concessionaires that they clear the land using chemicals or organic materials. The stacks of timber in rows would need a great amount of chemicals or organic materials to break them down, which are contrary to the profit-oriented approach of concessionaires.
In 2004, WALHI Riau brought legal charges against 36 concessionaires where there were indications that they were using fire to clear forest lands. WALHI collected evidence that more than half of the companies had stacked wood and debris into piles before fires started on their concessions. Unfortunately, the charges were never heard in court, as the judge concluded that WALHI did not have the authority to make charges.
The Indonesian Government has never taken serious action against those who start forest fires, although since 1997 it has carried out various studies and investigations into the causes of fires. UNDP has supported a Forest Fire Disaster Management Action Plan but with little results. ITB Forestry Faculty together with Forestry Department and ITTO have produced numerous plans for combating forest fires, but these have not been adopted by the government.
Meanwhile, the 1999 Forestry Act does not give adequate attention to combating forest fires. For example, the proposed ban on the use of fires to clear forest areas in the end was weakened to exclude concessionaires that have obtained permits for fires (section 50 clause 3 d). In comparison Malaysia has put into effect a clear policy prohibiting the use of fire to clear forest, with fines of up to 500,000 Ringgit (approx US$140,000) and up to five years in prison for both the land owner and the concessionaire found guilty of using fire to clear forests.
Other Indonesian Government regulations relating to forest also fail to sanction companies using fire to clear forests (PP No.6/99 on Forest Concessions and Forest Crop Harvests on Production Forest). Law No.23/97 on Biological Environment Management and Law No. 41/99 both do not giving a mandate to develop a Government Regulation (PP) on forest fires. Likewise Law No 18 on plantations does not include an administrative sanction for concessionaire who conduct land clearing using fire.
Policies to put out fires rather than stop them being lit
Government initiatives on forest fires prioritize activities to detect and control fires rather than efforts to prevent them in the first place. For example, government programs have emphasized infrastructure provision for firefighters and creating a system for fire detection. Meanwhile, not one policy or law enforcement activity is directed towards preventing the use of burning to clear forests. There are indications that concessionaires have become parasites inside the government body. The concessionaires gain benefits by minimizing land clearing costs while the government turns to concessionaires for official and non-official funding for regional development.
In 2003, Bapedalda, the provincial planning office in Riau collected evidence related to fire activities in 2001 that had occurred in 10 plantation and forest concessionaires in Riau. However, none of these companies were prosecuted. In 2005, when Walhi questioned why the investigations did not lead to prosecutions, Bapedalda Riau responded that the evidence had been lost!
The need for a new approach to stopping forest fires
What needs to be done to stop forest fires in Indonesia? WALHI calls on the government to immediately take action to:
- Stop issuing new licenses for land conversion, especially in forest areas.
- Create a regulation that prohibits concessionaires from using fire to clear their lands, and sanction all parties who start fires.
- Revoke concession licenses for companies that use fire in the land clearing process.
- Put into effect punishments for environmental crimes, especially for those who start forest fires.
- Prepare and release a manual on land use management without the use of fire, and distribute widely to companies and communities.
- Put into effect positive economic incentives for concessionaires who conduct land clearing without using fires.
Further Information: Rully Syumanda +6281319966998