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10% violators from Malaysia, Singapore: expert

  • Claiming insufficient manpower, only two or three firemen are deployed at each hot spot to fight the raging fires. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

Translated by DOMINIC LOH
Sin Chew Daily

DUMAI, Indonesia, June 27 (Sin Chew Daily) -- Since 2001, more than a hundred individuals have been apprehended by the Indonesian authorities for forest arson, 20 of whom from oil palm companies.

Forest fire expert Dr. Bambang Hero Saharjo tells Sin Chew Daily those arrested have been charged in the court eventually, and some 10% of the violators are from neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.

He points out further that an oil palm manager of a Malaysian company in Pangkalan Kerinci, Riau, was sentenced to one year in prison in 2001 for his involvement in deliberate arson while his company was fined US$1.5 million.

"The US$1.5 million served as compensation for the environmental damages caused, but was insignificant when compared to the actual damages caused to the ecological environment of Indonesia."

Bambang Hero says, statistics show that more than 10 million hectares of forests went up in smoke during the 1997 haze episode, resulting in more than US$10 billion in economic losses, affecting more than 20 million of inhabitants in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

"I do not mean the main culprits are Malaysian or Singapore oil palm businesses, but what I want to say is that it is undeniable more than half of forest fires in Indonesia have been due to commercial interests of oil palm companies."

As forest fires have become an annual incident in the country, Bambang Hero has since several years ago proposed to the government to reduce such incidents through education and dialogues with oil palm companies.

He nevertheless admits that attempts to educate the aborigines and impoverished residents not to burn the forests will not bring immediate results, although several enterprises have pledged to abide by the "zero burning" policy.

"Burning forests? Impossible!"

A 62-year-old Chinese Indonesian who has lived in Dumai for 26 years tells Sin Chew Daily he does not believe the latest bout of forest fires have been initiated by oil palm companies.

"It is more an accident caused by workers smoking inside oil palm plantations. I don't think any business will start a fire like this simply because fires are hard to control and there is no way you can confine the area of burning."

He tells us he has gone into the hot spots in Dumai with the enforcement officials, and has discovered that most of the palm trees in the burnt plantations are young trees under two metres, and therefore the assumption that companies are burning the old trees is not valid.

Meanwhile, another resident points out that he suspects the aborigines and local villagers could have started the forest fires in retaliation to the infringement of their lands by oil palm companies.

He says there are plenty of fruit orchards, rice fields and vegetable farms within many of these plantations, and these farmers often get into tussle with the plantation owners during the harvest seasons.

"Occasional bloodshed and arson do occur because the villagers are furious their livelihoods have been violated by the oil palm companies."

He says basically the haze does not have significant impact on the day-to-day lives of Indonesians, especially those in the lower income levels. To these farmers and wage earners, haze is not an issue so long as they can fill their stomachs.


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