Plantations blamed for 80% of forest fires

Jakarta to use the law against those responsible.

THE Indonesian government, threatening legal action, has blamed plantation firms for the country’s forest fires which have caused haze to envelope the region.

In comments reflecting increasing concern here that carelessness was largely to blame for the forest fires to hit Indonesia’s largest provinces, Forestry Minister Syarifudin Baharsyah said such fires were caused by plantations resorting to controlled burning to clear land.

“Plantations caused some 80 per cent of the forest fires,” he said, adding that the remaining 20 per cent were caused by traditional farming and slash-and-burn harvesting.

Media Indonesia, an Indonesian-language daily, yesterday quoted Mr Baharsyah as saying that the government had banned the use of controlled burning for land-clearing purposes.

“We will resort to using the law to curb those responsible for causing the fires,” he warned. Indonesian laws now provide up to 16 years in jail for violators.

He added, however, that the government had yet to take action against any plantation firm.

His comments came after the government accused five large-scale plantation companies in Riau last week of setting forest fires to clear land for new plantations. Local officials are investigating the dossiers of the five firms, before taking their case to the court.

Environment ministry officials have stressed repeatedly that carelessness was largely to blame for the spread of forest fires rather than current climatic conditions.

Indonesia is bracing itself for its worst drought in half a century and together with the illegal actions of some plantation firms, the government has warned that the country could face its worst fires in 15 years if measures are not taken to combat them.

Mr Baharsyah said the fires in the Indonesian provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan have so far destroyed 108,700 hectares of forest up to July this year.

But Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja noted recently that fires have destroyed nearly 300,000 ha of forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan this year.

He said that fires detroyed 161,000 ha of land in 1994, and about about 3,000 ha in 1995 and last year.

Indonesia experienced its worst forest fires in 1982 when three million hectares of land were destroyed, causing an estimated US$300 million (S$453 million) in damage.

Besides vowing to take strict action against companies responsible for the fires, the Indonesian government is trying to create rain artificially if the current dry season persists until October.

Neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Singapore are not immune from the problem. Haze and smoke have blanketed the region, causing disruption in the air and sea traffic and giving rise to health concerns.

Fires in Central and West Kalimantan have routinely caused haze problems in Malaysia while forest fires in the Sumatran provinces of Riau and Jambi have clouded skies over Singapore.

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