President Joko Widodo inspects a forest destroyed by fire in Pekanbaru, Riau, last week. (Antara Photo/Puspa Perwitasari)

Land Destroyed by Forest Fires Marked for Plantations: Disaster Mitigation Agency

BY :ANTARA, JEANNY AIPASSA & NUR YASMIN

SEPTEMBER 20, 2019

Jakarta. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said eighty percent of the land destroyed by forest fires in Indonesia this year will be converted into plantations, pointing the blame for the fires to unsustainable practices in the country's agriculture industry.

"Having observed the fires flying from Banjarmasin to Palangkaraya [in Kalimantan], I've concluded that 80 percent of the burned off land will be reused as plantations," National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) head Doni Monardo said in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, on Friday.

"The land that was already planted with palm oil, rubber and other industrial plantation produce did not catch fire, while the surrounding areas were totally burned off, some intentionally. Over 80 percent of the burned off land will be converted into plantations," he said.

Indonesia, the largest producer of palm oil in the world, has been under criticism for destroying its forest and peatland to expand palm oil plantations. The European Union plans to phase out palm oil use in biofuels by 2030 with Indonesia and Malaysia, the second-largest producer, trying to challenge the decision. But this year's widespread fires would only weaken the Southeast Asian countries' case against the EU plan.  

Local farmers and corporations have been blamed for the recurring forest fires. Police said last week they had arrested 185 people and representatives of four companies for starting the fires.

On Thursday, the Forestry Ministry said only 22 percent or 775 units out of 2,179 forest-related businesses in Indonesia had submitted their mandatory forest fire control report, indicating serious lack of efforts from the companies to prevent fires in their area.

The ministry held an advisory meeting and told off around 500 companies to start doing more to prevent forest fires and to find other means to expand their plantations without burning off land.

"We invited them to the meeting so they would take this issue seriously. Laws will be enforced and punishments will be hefty," director of forest fire control at the ministry, Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, said on Thursday.

The BNPB said around 328,000 hectares of forest and peatland have been destroyed by fire from January until August.

"The worst is in Riau with 49,000 hectares already destroyed," BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo said on Friday.

Meanwhile, Central Kalimantan has lost 44,000 hectares to forest fires, West Kalimantan almost 26,000 hectares, South Kalimantan 19,000 hectares and South Sumatra and Jambi 11,000 hectares each.

According to the agency, over five thousand fire hotspots were still burning across Indonesia on Friday. Central Kalimantan has the most number of fire hotspots (1,443), followed by West Kalimantan (1,384), Jambi (695), South Sumatra (532), Riau (187) and South Kalimantan (169). 

The president of Malaysia's People's Justice Party, Anwar Ibrahim, said on Thursday that Malaysia and Singapore should share the blame with Indonesia for the recurring forest fires that also affect other Asean member countries every year.  

"This is not a blame game. Some say Indonesia is guilty, but Malaysian companies are involved and Singapore has a lot of shares there," Anwar said on Thursday.

The former Malaysian deputy prime minister stopped short of calling for persecution for those companies. But he said they should muster enough resources to help alleviate the problem and not rely entirely on the Indonesian government to put out the fires.

The Indonesian government has been refusing to disclose land ownership data in areas badly affected by the forest fires – which could help the public to put pressure on the companies – despite a 2017 Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to disclose the information to the public.  

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