Mon, 13 Mar 2000

Environment watchdog tells govt to stop forest fire

JAKARTA (JP): The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said on Sunday the present government would lose some of its legitimacy if it failed to take comprehensive measures to stop forest fires.

"The government of Gus Dur and Megawati could (still) have political legitimacy, but they would lack social legitimacy if they fail to stop the disaster," Walhi said, referring to President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

In a press statement signed by its head of advocacy affairs Longgena Ginting, Walhi suggested the government could revoke the licenses of errant timber firms, but said this action was by itself not enough to solve the underlying problem.

"Revoking the licenses is just a short-term measure. There are more steps to be taken to prevent repeated forest fires," Longgena said.

He said the government had ignored the forest conversion rate that had reached between 0,75 and 1,1 million hectares per year only to serve market demands.

"Many pulp and paper industries are built and are ready to operate, without enough forests to supply raw materials for their production activities," Longgena lamented.

Citing an example, he said Riau's giant pulp and paper factory PT Riau Andalan Pulp (RAPP) had set its production capacity at 850,000 tons per year, but had only planted 83,000 hectare of forests on the total of 230,000 plots of land under its concession.

"The company's forests will be ready for use only in 2008, and in the meantime the company greatly depends on the old forests and will continuously exploit them.

"It is not impossible that RAPP is also encouraging illegal logging activities to secure its supply of raw material," Longgena remarked.

Hundreds of hectares of forest in Riau have caught fire over the past week due to alleged uncontrolled forest exploitation. But two days of heavy rains have temporarily cleared away the haze from the region.

Early morning visibility improved to five kilometers early Sunday from 300 meters two days earlier, but this is still half of the normal distance of 10 kilometers.

The government declared the fires a national disaster after about 1,200 fires were detected in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Many fear a repeat of the 1997 catastrophe when an estimated 10 million hectares of forest were scorched, causing thick smog to blanket parts of Southeast Asia.

Walhi noted that forest fires had been common in the last 20 years. Two fires hit more than three million hectares of forest in East Kalimantan in 1982 and 1991.

"To prevent the repeated incidents, the government has to take long-term measures," Longgena suggested.

According to Longgena, the government should review and if necessary suspended the policy on large-scale monoculture development and forest exploitation licenses.

The government also needs to stop offering incentives and financial assistance to forest-exploitation businesses as well as set the maximum capacity of the national timber industry to under 20 million cubic meters per year, he added.

"In brief, the government has to revamp the forest development policy," he said.

With the haze raising concerns in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, President Abdurrahman has promised to do everything possible to prevent an ecological disaster on the scale of three years ago. (emf)