Sat, 08 Oct 1994

False accusations?

Forest fires and the dense smoke which they cause happen almost every year. What is also routine are the accusations that are hurled at the traditional farmers who practice shifting agriculture. The reason is that these groups, which usually consist of local people, do their land clearing by burning. But are the accusations justified?

It may be useful to consider the research findings of the Indonesian Secretariat for Cooperation in Forest Conservation (SKEPHI). According to this non-governmental organization the acreage of the land burned by these farmers amounts to only 2.1 percent of the total that is destroyed. Agricultural estates must take the greatest share of the blame (60 percent), industrial forest estates come next (37 percent). Both of these are mostly owned by private entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, according to SKEPHI data, forest fires are concentrated in Lampung (52 percent), followed by Central Java (17 percent) and East Java (16 percent). Those three provinces are certainly not places that are inhabited by farmers practicing shifting agriculture. What does this mean? Simple: The accusations that those farmers are the culprits must be taken into doubt. This kind of doubt was also expressed earlier by the Minister of Transmigration Siswono Yudohusodo.

One could argue about the SKEPHI data. The fact, however, is that practitioners of shifting agriculture have been burning tracts of forests for hundreds of years. Why then, have forest fires become so much more widespread only during the past five years? Because the numbers of farmers engaging in the practice have drastically multiplied? Are they clearing land with increased aggression? Not likely.

Therefore, it could be that the increase in the numbers and extent of the forest fires is due to the rapid rise of new land clearing efforts. At present, 600,000 to one million hectares of land is cleared each year. To cite data compiled by Prof. Dr. Herman Haeruman, a forestry expert at the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), most of that land is cleared by burning. The reality is that this is the easiest method to clear land.

Our experiences of the past few years should have taught us to swiftly prevent such fires. The management of our forests -- especially by concessionaires -- should be improved immediately. And what is even more important, strict control over the way our forests are managed must be exerted immediately.

-- Republika, Jakarta