Why Indonesia Can Only Wait for Rain as Riau Burns and Singapore Chokes

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Motorcyclists drive through the smog in Dumai, Riau on June 21. (Reuters Photo)

Indonesia has accepted international praise for its deforestation legislation but has failed to invest in its enforcement, two top environmental groups said on Friday as fires continued to burn through protected peatlands in Sumatra.

The Ministry of Forestry lacks the resources to police the million of hectares of forest protected under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s acclaimed deforestation moratorium, Greenpeace Indonesia said. Fires in Riau province have burned for nearly a week, blanketing portions of Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore in a thick cloud of smog.

More than 140 hotspots have been observed in satellite images across Sumatra and Kalimantan since the start of the week. Environmental activists and the ministry disagree over the number of hotspots burning in protected forests. Environmental groups estimated that number was close to 70. The ministry said fires were reported in only “five or six” protected forests.

“It’s nowhere near 50 percent,” said ministry spokesman Sumarto.

Greenpeace Indonesia said the government has done little to invest in programs to curb slash-and-burn clearing or enforce forest protections. Without national investment in the policing of Indonesia’s protected forests, national regulations on land clearing amount to little more than smoke and mirrors, said Yuyun Indrani, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner.

“It is a lack of human resources,” Yuyun told the Jakarta Globe. “It would be ridiculous to keep saying it’s a lack of human resources; we’ve had these fires for years. We think that you need one person for every 10 hectares, but it’s not only that. You need helicopters and a plane. I haven’t seen the Ministry of Forestry invest in any of this.”

While the Indonesian government has attempted to curb the use of slash-and-burn clearing, a lack of enforcement and coordination at local levels has left regulations toothless.

“To reduce significant amounts of land burned, we need high political commitment followed by political will from central down to local government,” said Anwar Purwoto, a World Wildlife Fund Indonesia forestry campaigner.

The ministry admitted the manpower shortfall, but denied allegations that it was not investing in protecting Indonesia’s forests. The ministry employs some 12,000 forest rangers, about half of what it would need to adequately police 130 million hectares of land, Sumarto said.

“Every year we’ve asked for more forest rangers,” Sumarto said, adding that the ministry had sought the help of local governments in recruitment efforts. “Community participation is important. We’ll train them, embrace them and organize communal activities involving people living around forests, because these are communal forests.”

The ministry now relies on a large force of local landowners, called the “Manggala Agni” troops, to enforce deforestation regulations, Sumarto said.

“We partner with people living around forests… including Riau and West Kalimantan,” he said. “Now local communities that we’ve trained are working in the field. Every day I receive reports about hotspots. They’ve gone there, extinguishing the fires.”

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Cyclists on the boardwalk in front of Marina Bay, looking across to the Singapore financial district on June 20. (Reuters Photo)

Riau’s burning

The fires in Riau spread to cover more than 850 hectares of forested land on Friday, defying fire fighters’ efforts to extinguish the flames and prompting calls for the government to attempt to create artificial rain.

The president ordered the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to seed the clouds above Riau province — a method used in the past to create artificial rain — and drop water from agency helicopters. Three planes supplied by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) were sent to Pekanbaru Thursday night.

“[The] president has agreed to the strategies and demanded it gets done soon,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of BNPB, said on Thursday.

Traditional methods to extinguish the flames had failed to make a significant impact, Raffles Panjaitan, director of forestry investigations and observation at the Ministry of Forestry, said. The fires had reached underground peatland, making ground-based efforts ineffective, he said.

Still, the number of hotspots had decreased by Friday afternoon, according to Zulkifli Yusuf, the head of Riau Forestry Agency.

“Some of the fires have been extinguished, from 100-something hotspots to only 23 now,” Zulkifli said. “But smoke is still blowing.”

Hasyim, a local community leader in Pergam village, Bengkalis, said much of the fires were burning in a 500-hectare area communal area managed by local farmers. Hotspots were also reported in a concession managed by Sumatera Riang Lestari, an affiliate of Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper company, he said.

“All the years I’ve been here, this is the worst forest fire we’ve witnessed,” Hasyim said. “I guess it’s because of the high temperature. It hasn’t rained for days now.”

While much of the press has focused on the haze’s impact in Singapore and Malaysia, the local residents of Riau are feeling the greater heat. Residents have fled their homes in Bengkalis, Hasyim reported. Some 30 percent are experiencing respiratory problems. The fires have burned through hectares of local farmland, decimating this season’s crops, he added.

“So please send us rubber and oil palm seeds after this is over,” he said. “I’m also asking the government to prevent this incident from happening again.”

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Firefighters spray burning palm oil trees in Dumai, Riau on June 21. (Reuters Photo)

The blame game

Riau Police launched an investigation on Friday into five companies accused of setting fire to plantation lands. The department declined to name the companies, but promised legal action against those responsible.

“We will take strict action against the companies that exercised illegal burning,” Riau Police chief Brig. Gen. Condro Kirono said.

Those found guilty of setting the fires could have their licenses revoked, National Police spokesman  Brig. Gen. Franky F. Sompie said. There are no criminal charges for setting fires to clear land in Indonesia.

“There will be administration sanctions like license revocation, but not by the National Police,” Franky said. “It doesn’t have to be a legal sanction.”

The Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and the Ministry of Forestry previously denied the involvement of large palm oil and pulp companies, saying the blame instead lay with local small-scale farmers.

But the line between large multinational palm oil companies and small-scale farmers isn’t always clear, said J. Jackson Ewing, a researcher at the Center for Non-Traditional Security at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“One thing to consider is that the small-scale/large-scale division is not black and white,” he said in an email. “In many cases smallholders are contracted to large companies and receive front-end support (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) for subsequent outputs.”

A Greenomics Indonesia study identified 1,106 hotspots in areas managed by 57 HTI forest concession holders and plantations firms, including concessions run by Sinar Mas Group, the owners of Asia Pacific Pulp and Paper (APP), and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a subsidiary of APRIL, Elfian Effendi, the executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, said in a press statement released on Friday. The NGO also discovered fires in land owned by First Resources, one of Indonesia’s largest palm companies.

Officials from Singapore and Indonesia have traded diplomatic blows over who is responsible for the thick smog covering much of the region this week. The city-state criticized Jakarta for failing to curb the annual fires, prompting Indonesian officials to fire back with allegations that the companies involved are registered in Singapore and Malaysia.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. Most palm oil and pulp companies have a foot in two or more countries. Sinar Mas Group was founded by Indonesian businessman Eka Tjipta Widjaja, but has branches listed on stock exchanges in Indonesia and Singapore.

RGE Pte. Ltd., which owns APRIL and RAPP, has offices in Singapore, Indonesia and China. The company was founded by Sukanto Tanoto, a billionaire with New Order ties who, by all accounts, sprang from humble beginnings in Medan.

The Singapore-listed First Resources is owned by Tjiliandra Fangiono, Indonesia’s 38th richest man — worth $1.05 billion according to Globe Asia.

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A mother gives a drink to her son as she prepares to leave her house with her children after a forest fire spread close to their home near Dumai on June 20. (Reuters Photo)

Diplomatic Riau

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised swift action against any Singaporean companies involved in the blaze.

“If any Singapore companies are involved, or companies which are present in Singapore are involved, we will take it up with them,” Lee said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Singapore’s air quality degraded to “very hazardous” levels by 11 a.m. on Friday, breaking 400 on the Pollutant Standards Index, the National Environment Agency reported. Residents in Singapore have complained of worsening conditions as the fires entered their fifth day.

“The air quality has become worse.. the PSI readings went from 190 to 290 in an hour and everyone thought it was a typo,” said Alex Coulston, an American teacher living in Bukit Timah, Singapore. “The next day I could really feel it. More people are wearing masks, even me, and staying indoors. [People are] overall angry and frustrated.”

As Indonesia and Singapore continued to lock diplomatic horns on Friday night with smog still drifting over the Malacca Strait, Haysim cast doubts that the end was in sight.

“I can’t tell you where the fire began; I don’t know much about that. But the point is the fire has spread everywhere, and it will keep spreading if it isn’t handled quickly,” he said. “Now there is no sign that the fires will be gone soon.”

The Indonesian government appears to agree, pinning its hopes on rain solving the problem while authorities admit there are too few resources to protect its vast rainforests.

“Allow me to convey a message from people here to the government,” Haysim said. “This fire is a catastrophe.”

— Additional reporting by Cameila Pasandaran, Dessy Sagita, Erwida Maulia and Ethan Harfenist

  • Muffinman

    There are people out there who would alter the very fabric of our earth and bring us closer to Armageddon for no other reason than pure greed. The companies that devise schemes for this annual onslaught of burning and the governments that stand idly by and let it happen need to be brought to justice.
    The lungs of the world are burning and we are filling our own lungs with the smoke.
    This yearly madness must stop.

  • 22roles

    Indonesia must not hesitate to revoke licenses of any of those companies that involve in this horrible acts , specially any involvement direct or indirect any of sovereign funds from few countries. It’s better to severe the diplomatic ties instead of destroying the forest of our own earth while those criminals enjoying billions in profit. I am pretty sure it will be the right path to get them more accountable to their own acts.

  • TalkingEid

    Only because RI wont agree to an extradition treat.

  • H. Tobing

    It is the word “going” mispelled. Please try and think out of the box, the future of Indonesia depends on you and others.

    • TalkingEid

      Ah I see – so when Tweedle Dum makes an error we should simply accept it – but of course Tweedle Dum won’t extend the same courtesy to others. Typical feudal mindset – ‘respect me even though I don’t respect you”.

      Squeal little piggy……

  • TalkingEid

    Name them – YOU are the one making unsubstantiated allegations – so give us some names.

  • MadWorld

    I am trying to understand the core of your comment?

  • Akhyari Hananto

    “As a whole, Indonesia needs Singapore and Singapore can play a useful role in Indonesia. It’s still very symbiotic in many ways.” –> Hahahaha. This child is really funny.

  • hohopig

    actually, there wasn’t any noise in the first place. The only “noise” is from one named Agung.

  • hohopig

    curious thing is, some of these companies may be registered in a foreign country but is founded by indonesian businessman :P Bring a new meaning to fiddling while a city burns.

  • jakarta

    Indeed, he is the origin of all this noises