Sat, 01 Oct 1994

Walhi blames concessionaires for forest fires

JAKARTA (JP): The Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) said yesterday that the widespread brushfires in Kalimantan were started by forest concessionaires and not by the local practice of slash and burn cultivation.

The Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) said that its monitoring of the situation in Kalimantan found that the Dayak people, the dominant local tribe, practice slash and burn very selectively and are well experienced in containing the spread of fires.

Instead, according the Walhi officials, the current bush fire that has engulfed almost all of Kalimantan with smoke was caused by inexperienced plantation and forestry companies.

Emmy Hafield, Walhi's special program coordinator, told The Jakarta Post that it was naive to blame the local tribes for the disaster because they finished their land clearing schedule in August.

The fire started sometime this month, she said.

In contrast, the concessionaires are burning the forest arbitrarily to clear the land and later lost control when the fire began to spread to other areas.

Walhi pointed out that in East Kalimantan, fire usually occurs in areas occupied by non-indigenous people.

Walhi was challenging the government's suggestion that the local tribes, who still practice slash and burn cultivation, caused the majority of the fires in Kalimantan.

Emmy said the native Dayak people know when they should clear the land to begin their planting season. The Dayak people make use of the centuries-old methods in selecting the planting season by referring to the moon and stars, she added.

In burning the tress to clear the land for planting, the people also employ certain techniques so that fire will not destroy the adjacent areas.

She said that nomadic tribes should not be held responsible for the fires because the people live in thick and humid forests and have permanent farming.

It was Minister of Transmigration Siswono Yudohusodo who suggested that most of the fires on the island were caused by transient farming practiced by the local people.

Minister of Forestry Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo however admitted that politically motivated arson may have been behind some of the forest fires in Kalimantan.


The widespread brushfires have caused huge blankets of haze in many parts of Kalimantan and paralyzed air transportation in major cities in the four Kalimantan centers.

Neighboring Malaysia has complained about the smog blown over from the brushfires in Kalimantan and Sumatra. In Singapore, the smog has posed health problems for people.

The fire is most widespread in Central Kalimantan, where it has affected over 80,000 hectares of forest. In East Kalimantan, it has burnt some 200 hectares.

In Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, the airport has been closed and the local people are complaining about water scarcity, eye and respiratory problems and diarrhea.

Walhi said that blaming the local people for their farming method would not solve the problem because naturally, Kalimantan is blessed with huge deposits of peat and coal, making the area prone to fires.

Forest exploitation by the concession holders and the new settlers has led to the rampaging fires, said the organization.

Walhi said that efforts should be made to solve the problem, adding that the fires should not be treated as a seasonal issue. The local people should also be invited to take part in efforts to prevent forest fire. (par)