Thursday, August 31, 2006

Walhi blames 106 firms for causing forest fires

Jakarta Post, August 30, 2006
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has accused 106 logging and plantation firms of causing the annual widespread forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Walhi listed Tuesday the names of logging, industrial timber estate and oil palm plantations firms - including giant pulp and paper producer Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (Riaupulp) and its partners -- that it said should be prosecuted for fires that destroyed 27 million hectares of forests over the last five years. "They should be held responsible because every year fires occur in their concessions," Walhi executive director Chalid Muhammad told a media gathering in his office.
Riaupulp's public relations manager Troy Pantouw commented the accusations may be untrue, and said Riaupulp urged its partners to conduct environmentally-friendly business operations.
He also denied that hot spots occurring in Riaupulp's concessions were from fires intentionally ignited by the company. "It's illogical for our business because burned peat soil would only degrade the quality of our raw material," he told The Jakarta Post. Walhi's investigation and "ground check" report showed that of about 40,000 hot spots annually detected by satellite from 2001 to August 2006, 81 percent were in areas belonging to the companies.
"They, of course, have consistently denied that they set the fires. But still they have to be held responsible for failing to prevent fires in their concessions and their spread," Chalid added.
"If they couldn't do that, they are obviously not qualified to earn concessions. They should return their rights to the government." He also said the findings proved that senior government officials were wrong when they accused nomadic farmers of setting the fires. "Only 19 percent of the fires occur on privately owned land, outside the firms' concessions. So the problem is how to get tough with the companies, not to arrest farmers." The Environment Ministry's 2005 report somewhat supports Walhi's allegations. For example, it stated that last year's forest fires in Sumatra mostly occurred in plantation firms' areas (31 percent), while in Kalimantan they were mostly found in areas under logging companies (37 percent). Walhi forest campaigner Rully Syumanda said legal action against the firms faced serious problems because the country's Criminal Code required the police to provide solid proof, such as matches, gasoline and witnesses. "Seeking such evidence is like searching for a needle in a haystack," he said, adding that the country's forestry and plantation laws actually mandated tough punishment for those responsible for burning forests. In Batam, State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar said his office would issue a new regulation to seize land cleared through burning of forests.
"The regulation will be aimed at facilitating the arrest of the perpetrators," he told Antara newswire, vowing to effect punishment. Greenomics Indonesia estimates that rampant ground and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan would inflict direct and indirect losses to the
state, private sectors and the public worth of over Rp 227 billion (about US$25 million) per day.
The environmental group believed the fires would cause losses up to Rp 170.92 billion per day from various losses, such as the degradation of forest areas and biodiversity.


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