Mon, 10 Oct 1994

Kalimantan forest fires die down as rains come

BALIKPAPAN, East Kalimantan (JP): Forest fires, which have disrupted flights and reportedly sent haze to as far as Malaysia and Singapore, have died down largely because of pouring rains.

Local officials said last week fires that has hit Kalimantan since August have destroyed 660 hectares of forests in East Kalimantan and the resulted financial loss is yet to be counted.

The long-awaited drizzle for the first time in the current dry season soaked the province on Oct. 3 and continued on the following days even though it was not as heavy as expected.

Sporadic fires broke out mostly in the Bukit Soeharto national park stretching more than 100 kilometers from this oil town to the East capital city of Samarinda and in state-controlled research forests nearby.

Officials have blamed the fires, which occur every dry season, largely on farmers who have practiced slash-and-burn farming system generation after generation.

Forest rangers are still closely watching the burning underground low-grade coal commonly found in the 63,000 hectare Bukit Soeharto and its surrounding areas. The burning coal has been identified as a natural cause of forest fires.

Gozali Abas of the forestry office in the Mahakam Hilir regency said there were 47 places where coal is burning the whole year in Bukit Soeharto alone.

"No special effort has been made to put out the burning coal," he told visiting Jakarta journalists.

Abas, who supervises poorly equipped a dozen forest rangers to secure Bukit Soeharto, claimed that the government did not provide money to fund his activities.

His brigade is only equipped with two water pumps, 12 sticks to extinguish fire, 12 spades and a water truck to secure the 63,000 hectare reserve forest.

The fire has also razed part of the 27 hectare research forest bordering the Bukit Soeharto, destroying a great number of young trees in its demonstration plots.

Nomadic farmers

Daud Lepe of the Samarinda-based government forest research institute said that most fires were started by nomadic farmers who burned bushes at night when wind is blowing weak in the hope that the fire could be contained.

Nomadic farmers burn bushes to reduce the level of the soil's acidity so that the land becomes fertile and crops can grow.

Since the Bukit Soeharto a reserve forest, people from other provinces who have resided within the local government has evicted people living within the area.

Many have been resettled outside of the reserve under the government-sponsored transmigration program. The farmers are given substitute land and homes.

As if orchestrated, few local officials put their finger at forest concession holders, whom various non-governmental organizations have suspected of causing many of the fires.

But according to Ali Sofyan, chief of the special forest police force overseeing security of the Bukit Soeharto and surrounding forests, many concession holders do not have their own firefighters as required by laws.

"Reforestation areas run by concession holders which have been gutted by fire do not have security personnel deployed there," He said.

He said the fires mostly destroyed drying bushes and reforestation areas.

According to Minister of Forestry Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo, this year's fires have affected more than five million hectares of forests throughout Indonesia, mostly Kalimantan and Sumatra. (pan)