Forest fires cost Jakarta at least $45m

Figure excludes losses to estates, says minister.

FOREST fires have destroyed more than 165,000 ha of forest in Indonesia this year, causing an estimated loss of 132 billion rupiah (S$45 million), Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo has said.

He said that the fires, which wrecked havoc in Indonesia’s largest provinces and neighbouring countries by enveloping the region with haze, had done much more damage given that the latest figures did not include losses incurred by timber estates and plantations.

The Jakarta Post yesterday quoted him as saying that, of the 165,000 ha of forest destroyed, 125,000 ha were protected forests and 40,000 ha bush and land.

Earlier government figures had put the area destroyed at 108,700 ha.

The leading environmental watchdog, Walhi, however, believes that the figure could be as high as 1.7 million ha.

Speaking to reporters after attending an environmental conference in Bandung, he said that the fires were concentrated in Central and West Kalimantan and the Sumatran provinces of Riau and Jambi.

Fires also destroyed large tracts of land in Irian Jaya and Java.

He stopped short of blaming anyone for the fires though the Indonesian government had said previously that large plantation and timber firms accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the forest fires in the country.

The remaining 20 per cent of fires were caused by traditional slash-and-burn clearance methods.

The government had also blamed the drought-inducing El Nino climatic phenomenon for exacerbating the problem as Indonesia endured one of its worst droughts in 50 years.

Mr Djamaludin said that besides destroying forest areas, the fires also caused “immeasurable ecological damage” by destroying habitats and ecosystems.

He said: “Forest burning also damaged the soil as it killed all the useful organisms which made the land productive,” he said.

He declined to estimate how many years it would take to rehabilitate the destroyed forest areas. But scientists believe thatrecovery could take from 20 to 30 years up to 300 to 500 years given the scale of the damage.

An official of the Environmental Impact and Management Agency (Bapedal) noted that the three million ha of land destroyedby forest fires in 1982 had yet to be rehabilitated even after 15 years of reforestation.

Participants attending the environmental conference had earlier called for stricter laws to deter land clearing by fire.

Some noted that since the fires affected neighbouring countries like Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, regulations had to be pitched at an international standard.

Referring to current forestry laws, one participant said: “The law only stipulates punishment in the form of imprisonment or fines but does not include details on how the punishment should be brought about.”

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