Tue, 11 Oct 1994

Political will needed to prevent forest fires

Apart from disturbing air traffic and polluting the environment, the forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra also caused a loss of life when two ships collided off the province of Riau recently. Environmentalist Emmy Hafild, argues that the government is lacking in political will to prevent forest fires.

Question: What do you think we should do now that huge forest fires are ravaging Kalimantan and Sumatra?

Answer: These fires are merely a symptom of our denuded forests. Hence, the fires are not the reason but the result of our already denuded forests. It all started in 1982-1983 when a total of 3.7 million hectares of forest were burned in East Kalimantan. During every long drought thereafter fires have swept in an increasingly devastating scale. The last big fires were in 1991 when I was stranded for two days in Bengkulu. There were also complaints from Malaysia and Singapore at that time but this current fire ranks as the worst. And this will happen again and again every time we have a long drought. We cannot do anything about it because most of our forests have been damaged. Most of our forests are no longer primary forests but former logging areas where million of cubic meters of log remnants lay scattered on the forest floor. Aren't they the best fuelwood?

Is there anything that can be done to overcome the forest fires apart from waiting for the rains to come?

I think it is embarrassing to just wait for the rains to come. But if we want to do something now it is too late. Fire-prone areas should have been recognized. The Ministry of Forestry should already have a map with red spots referring to those areas. However, it is a fact that we have not been able to contain this fire which has been ravaging for two months now. Why did we fail to monitor those areas and buy satellite photos as soon as a fire started. We have the means to do that. Our forests are not like the ones in California where fires spread very rapidly in two or three days. Ours are humid tropical forests with 70 percent humidity compared to those in California which can be as low as five percent.

So now it is too late?

What can we do now that the fires have become so big? I think the Ministry of Forestry should better prepare itself for possible fires in the future. First we must have forest fire brigades. We earn US$3 billion a year from timber exports, can't we buy forest fire technology? It is unbelievable. And in fire fighting, I think, the forest concessionaires should play a major role. I think a special tax should be levied on them for fighting forest fires.

Secondly we must have a community network, an early warning system to alert us and a means to extinguish it right away, towers to monitor fires at their earliest stage and technology to overcome fires. Indonesia has such large forest areas that we must have the means to extinguish forest fires.

But we do have towers, like for example in Bukit Soeharto?

Yes there are, but whether or not the towers are being manned is a different question. This is where the problem lies. You have the towers but you do not have the community networks, you don't have handitalkies. That's why we were mad when the reforestation funds were channeled to IPTN (state-owned aircraft manufacturer) while the scarce field forestry officers are left with poor communication equipment. So they have to work together with the local people which means that they have to win their hearts while thee ministry must straighten up a number of problems, like for example, the land rights problem.

How big is the scale of this land rights problem in relation to forest fires?

It is big because the current forestry law does not recognize the rights of the people who have lived for decades in the forest.

So, is there a need to change the land rights?

Actually, the people's right is recognized in our current Forestry Law but it has been intentionally ignored by the government.

The law can be implemented only if the government has the political will to enforce it. If it is enforced the local people will have a sense of belonging and will be willing to work together with forestry officials in the field to set up community networks.

Our neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia, who are affected by the fires, have expressed their willingness to assist us. In what way do you think they can help?

At most, it is in buying fire fighting equipment. What can we do now to our forest which has been damaged for 20 years? Official records show that a total of 600,000 hectares are damaged every year and we had only 92.4 million hectares left in 1993 compared to 119.3 million hectares in 1982.

Foreign aid to overcome forest fires is huge according to reports from the Ministry of Forestry, but it can't be utilized because it doesn't have a matching fund from the government.

Why is there no matching fund?

I don't know, the money is there sitting on the bank.

It is said that the soil in Kalimantan has a deposit of coal which makes it difficult for fire fighters to extinguish fires?

We cannot blame nature every time fires occur. Coal has been there for hundreds of years, why have big forest fires only manifested themselves in recent years? Moreover, coal deposits exist only in certain areas like in Bukit Soeharto and several spots in East Kalimantan, but not in West Kalimantan.

The forestry minister recently said that slash and burn practices contributed most to the current fire?

Hasn't the slash and burn practice has been going on for hundreds of years? The concession areas are now bordering farmers' land which means that a fire that comes from a concession area could affect farmers' land. What we know is that in some areas local farmers who practice slash and burn have begun planting seeds.

The government says no less than 5 million hectares have been affected by the fire. Could you verify this data?

We have no means of verifying this figure.

Emmy Hafild is program coordinator at the Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi). (hbk)