Burning Indonesia’s forests

By Pongpol Sarnsamak

PONTIANAK, Indonesia – For the indigenous Dayak people in West Kalimantan’s Sangau district, burning the forest is a ritual activity. Before a fire is started a ceremony which can last for up to three days is held to express respect and appreciation for the water, land, trees and fire which make up the life of the forest.

When the ceremony is completed, normally in the afternoon of a dry day, a controlled fire is lit from the top of a selected hill all the way to the bottom, allowing the flames to spread quickly. However, the fire is not allowed to spread beyond a barrier built around the hill, i.e. a large ditch dug manually prior to the completion of the ceremony.

Because burning the forest is an integral part of the lives of the Dayak people, they have long-held traditions that govern this potentially dangerous activity.

“When some of us want to clear land or open up a forested area using fire, according to our traditional rules we first must discuss with other villagers the exact location and also how we plan to control the fire,” said Lubu, a former leader of Sanjan village in Sangau.

To protect against the possibility of a wildfire, villagers dig five-meter-wide ditches around their houses and rice fields. Rubber trees planted around the entire village act as a firewall.

Despite their long-established rules on forest burning, uncontrolled fires have in the past threatened the village. These fires, however, were not set by the villagers but by distant plantation companies, many of them oil palm plantations, using the inexpensive slash-and-burn method to clear land for planting.

Oil palm plantations are for the most part a remote concern for the people in Sangau district, but for the residents of Ketapang district, which lies along the border with Malaysia, the large plantation firms constitute a pressing problem.

Several plantation companies in Ketapang have been accused of forcing villagers off their lands. According to numerous reports, the companies’ representatives first make overtures to the villagers, inviting them to plant their fields with oil palms instead of rice. If the villagers refuse, the companies burn the nearby forest, with the flames jumping to the rice fields. This is how many of the forest fires in West Kalimantan on Indonesia’s part of Borneo island have started.

“Before (the plantation companies arrived), most of the forest here was virgin. Now we do not have any virgin forest because the big companies have opened large areas for plantations. Villagers do not accept this,” said Agustin Bayer, a resident of Tanjung village.

As the forests have been turned into oil palm plantations, farmers, particularly rice farmers, have suffered. One of the main consequences of the destruction of the forests has been the arrival of swarms of locusts that strip the fields, destroying crops and forcing farmers to purchase rice with what little money they have to feed their families.

Villagers in the areas have decided to fight back against the oil palm plantations by planting fire-resistant rubber trees. Planting rubber trees is also more financially rewarding for villagers than planting oil palms. With the rubber trees, farmers can harvest and sell their products themselves, whereas with oil palms they are forced to sell their harvest to the plantation companies for less than half the market value.

The biggest issue for the Dayaks, however, is not what to plant, but their ancestral land rights, which are often ignored by the government. Though the Dayak people are not destroying the forests, but instead protecting them, they are not entitled to own the land on which they and their ancestors have lived for generations.

“Most indigenous people occupy lands rich with natural resources, but the central government needs these natural resources. So it blames the indigenous people for forest fires because of their traditional slash-and-burn agricultural activities. But if you look at the hot spots on satellite images, you can see most of the fires start in areas controlled by plantation companies and are not the result of the activities of indigenous people,” said John Bamba, director of the Institute of Dayak Research and Development.

Though the large plantation companies are responsible for the majority of the forest fires in West Kalimantan, the blame continues to be laid on local Dayaks. With the government continuing to ignore the real causes of the fires, it is little wonder that West Kalimantan – and Kalimantan as a whole – continues to suffer from annual forest fires.

Two of the worst fire seasons in Kalimantan occurred in 1982/83 and 1997. Fires in 1982/83 destroyed huge areas of prime tropical forests, including large swaths of protected forest such as Kutai National Park. In 1997, a massive area of Kalimantan was devastated by fire, sending a choking haze over much of Southeast Asia. The worst affected areas were Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia itself.

The fires in both 1982/83 and 1997 were made worse by unusually dry weather and high temperatures that resulted from the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather phenomenon. ENSO brought prolonged drought not only to Kalimantan but also to many other parts of Indonesia.

“I predict the ENSO will happen again soon and we will have a big haze as what happened in 1997,” said scientist Gusti Hardiansyah, a researcher at Tanjungpura University in West Kalimantan.

But even with the ENSO, it would be extremely difficult for a fire to start in a healthy, intact tropical forest, according to Hardiansyah Rully Syumanda, head of the forest fire program at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), an influential coalition of non-governmental organizations with national offices in Jakarta and regional offices across the country.

“In a scientific analysis, it is very difficult to have a fire in a tropical forest because of the very high humidity. However, when we cut down the large trees, it is easy for a fire to start and spread because of human activities in the forest,” he said.

Hardiansyah and other environmentalists blame rampant illegal logging and the land clearing activities of oil palm plantations for the annual forest fires.

Oil palm plantation companies have denied any wrongdoing but newspaper reports say
to date, two plantation companies in Riau province, in eastern Sumatra, or west of Kalimantan,
have been slapped jail sentences for burning forests to clear land.

The Jakarta Post says the director of Malaysian company PT Adei Plantation was sentenced by a local court in 2003 to two years in jail for starting forest fires. The company was also fined 1.1 million U.S. dollars in compensation to the government, which it agreed to pay.

PT Cipta Daya Sejati, in Kampar regency, was also penalized in 1999, but only with light sentences — three employees of the company were sentenced to between three and six months in jail, the national daily added.

According to WALHI, at least 10 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests had been destroyed by fire in 1997 alone, mostly in Kalimantan, representing a total economic loss of about 3.5 billion U.S. dollars. In addition, the resulting haze from the forest fires has affected an estimated 75 million people across the region.

The fires also have destroyed valuable habitat for rare and endangered species like the Proboscis monkey, orangutan and sun bear. Wildlife is more likely to come into conflict with human populations as they flee burning forests or are driven out to look for a new habitat or food.

Large forest fires can also cause acid rain, which further damages forest habitats. They also result in huge releases of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

David Glover, director of the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, which supports training and research in environmental economics in 10 Asian countries, estimated that about 80 percent of the forest fires in 1997 were started by plantation owners clearing land for oil palm, rubber, and industrial timber plantations.

The problem is compounded by the large amount of peat land in Kalimantan, allowing fires to
spread quickly and hampering efforts to control blazes because in some area the peat layer can reach a depth of 20 meters.

Making matters worse, the government introduced in the mid-1990s a massive agricultural project in Kalimantan, called “Sejuta Hektar Sawah”, which aimed to create one million hectares of paddy by transforming a huge area of peat swamp into rice fields by digging an irrigation system that turned the swamp into dry peat – an open invitation to fires. This project ultimately proved to be a failure and has worsened Kalimantan’s forest fire problem.

Each year the fires return to Kalimantan and yet the government seems reluctant to address the problem once and for all. The issue is always corruption and a lack of funds, either to prevent the fires or to put them out once they start.

“We don’t get enough money from the central government to contain the forest fires,” said Surnano, a local forestry officer in Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan. He seems not to understand that the forestry sector is now under the authority of local governments, which are often more interested in exploiting the forests than protecting them.

As a result, once fires start they will spread quickly until they die down by themselves, either because they have already destroyed all of the forest or because of some timely rainfall.

The government and all concerned parties, including civil society groups, can no longer afford to sit idly by and allow this problem to continue.

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