Thu, 30 Aug 2001

Ministry probes concessionaires over forest fires

JAKARTA (JP): The Ministry of Forestry is probing some 100 forest concessionaires over forest fires that have been blamed for causing the haze that recently blanketed some parts of the country.

Minister of Forestry M. Prakosa said on Wednesday that his ministry would take firm action against those who were proven to have caused the forest fires.

"If proven, we may revoke their concessions, demand compensation, or bring them to court," Prakosa told reporters following a media conference held to highlight the principal programs of his ministry.

Prakosa said that clamping down on forest fires was one of top five programs of his ministry.

The other four principal programs were the eradication of illegal logging; expediting the restructuring of the country's timber companies; bolstering the development of industrial timber estates; and the implementation of regional autonomy in the forestry sector.

The forest fires in Indonesia have become a regional issues as they have been blamed for causing the haze that has frequently troubled many neighboring countries.

The haze hit neighboring countries again last month, causing protests and worries that it would recur on the same scale as in 1997.

The 1997 haze caused an estimated US$9.3 billion in economic losses, as well as damage to human health.

The haze has recently abated in neighboring countries, but Antara reported on Wednesday that large parts of Central Kalimantan province were still blanketed with haze.

Citing the ministry's findings, Prakosa said that forest fires had started in concession areas, plantation estates, and the forest areas belonging to the locals.

The forest fires were believed to have been caused by the slash-and-burn activities of farmers and by land-clearing activities by forest concessionaires.

However, the country's forestry trade association has insisted that the association's members were not responsible for the forest fires.

The Association of Forest Concession Holder (APHI)'s spokesperson Riza Suarga said last month that the allegation that forest fires had been caused by the concessionaires was baseless.

"Forests are our source of livelihood. How could we set them ablaze?" he asked.

Prakosa said his ministry would keep monitoring hot spots in the country's forests through U.S. and Japanese satellites to detect early signs of fires.

A hot spot is an area of high temperature indicating the presence of fires.

"We disseminate the information on a daily basis to regional administrations and timber companies so as to keep them well- informed," he said.

It's better to prevent than to have to extinguish forest fires, he said.

According to ministry data, there were 2,239 hot spots spread across the country as of mid-2001, about half the number recorded several years ago.

There ware 12 fire-prone forest areas in Riau and Kalimantan, with 412 hot spots detected in Riau alone last month, according to the data.(dmr)