Sat, 29 Oct 1994

Farmers the most defenseless in forest fires

By Pandaya

TANI BAKTI VILLAGE, East Kalimantan: Life is harsh for Appe Said, his wife and three children even though they have spent almost four years in this "promise land."

The vast and breathtaking hilly landscape surrounding their homes with the grass swaying in the breeze is probably the only thing the hundreds of families living here can take for granted.

Giant scorched tree stumps left by the legendary 1982 fires that destroyed three million hectares of forest dot the seemingly endless landscape.

"We're more miserable now than ever. Nobody has gone on haj pilgrimage (to Mecca) since we were resettled here," says Appe's wife, Asriana, undeterred by the watching officials.

Appe, who is of the well-known hot blooded Bugis ethnic group, says he is ashamed to return to his home village in South Sulawesi. But life in this resettlement site is not as rosy as officials promised.

"People in my ancestral village now have decent homes, radios and all that. If I return, I will have to start all over again," he says, staring at his six-months pregnant wife.

In the resettlement village located about three kilometers from the Balikpapan-Samarinda highway, they live in a humble wooden house the government supplied.

The two-hectare plot of agricultural land, also given free to them, is so arid they cannot cultivate it in the dry season. Then it becomes necessary for them to work in construction and forestry projects many miles away from home.

The village does have an elementary school, but children lucky enough to have the privilege of attending junior secondary school have to walk at least five kilometers to the nearest one.

Water is scarce as the dam built for them by the government is dry and residents have to spend hours fetching water from wells.

The Appes are just one of some 500 families that were resettled here after being evicted several years ago from their land which the local government declared part of the 63,000 hectares of the Bukit Soeharto reserve.

There are hundreds of other farming families living in Bukit Soeharto to be resettled elsewhere under the state-sponsored transmigration program to "secure" the national park extremely prone to fire.

Farmers have been made the biggest villains in the forest fires that commonly occur in the dry season in many parts of the Kalimantan jungles.

The eviction process is apparently not that easy because many occupants fiercely cling to their demand for a higher compensation than the government is offering.

But the government has been intensifying the pressure. "We have been denied bank credits for farming because officials say the land we have occupied since the 1960s belongs to the state," said Suparlan, a neighborhood unit chief in a Bukit Suharto village.

Farmers practicing slash-and-burn techniques have been the prime scapegoats in this year's current fires which so far has destroyed thousands of hectares of forest across Kalimantan, leaving untold damage in financial and, notably, ecological terms.

People have to clear land by burning the bushes to reduce the level of soil acidity to allow crops to grow.

In their defense, farmers argue that the technique has been safely practiced generation after generation and only in the past decade or so have they been blamed for forest fires.

The indigenous Dayak people, ethnics in the Kalimantan hinterland, for instance, are well-known for their traditional slash-and-burn farming method. They have practiced this method for generations without affecting the ecological balance. They consider themselves as part of the nature they ought to protect.

The division of what was once the indigenous' traditional property into concessionaire forests has not only generated confusion for the indigenous people, but also heightened tension between them, the businessmen and officials.

The recent fires that turned into a blaming game was a case in point.

Minister of Forestry Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo says nomadic farmers burnt 1.5 million hectares of forest on various islands, "settled" farmers 2.8 million hectares, while government-owned industrial estates "only" 17,000 hectares. Fires started by plantation and reforestation activities destroyed about 36,000 hectares.

Farmers point the finger at businessmen from the towns for most of the fires.

Suparlan, a Banjar ethnic who has lived near Bukit Suharto for more than three decades, said forest fires became commonplace after concessionaire holders moved in during the 1970s and disturbed the ecological balance of the forests.

"A virgin forest is unlikely to catch fire because the level of humidity is very high," he said, pointing out that fires usually raze "secondary" forests and bushes which were once a jungle.

Earlier this month, the Indonesian Foresters Community (MPI), a non-governmental organization under timber tycoon Bob (Muhammad) Hasan, sponsored a press trip for Jakarta-based journalists to East Kalimantan where he reportedly controls many thousands of hectares of forests.

The MPI mission was vague but clear enough: to convince everyone that forest concession holders were not responsible for the fires.

MPI officials led the newsmen to burned areas in Sungai Wain reserve forest and Bukit Soeharto national parks where, as if orchestrated, local forest authorities were unanimous in their support of the concessionaire's insistence that fires were started by irresponsible farmers.

Journalists were also shown places where low-grade coal was smoldering underground, a natural cause of fire which isn't doused by downpours and which is commonly found in Bukit Soeharto and its surrounding areas.

Gozali Abas of the Mahakam Hilir forestry office, who supervises a dozen poorly equipped forest rangers in securing Bukit Soeharto, says there are 47 places in the reserve where coal smolders year-round.

"The government has made no special effort to put out the embers," he says.