Thu, 26 Jun 2003

Walhi sues governor for neglecting forest fires

Haidir Anwar Tanjung, The Jakarta Post, Pekanbaru, Riau

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) is suing Riau governor Saleh Djasit for negligence over his inability to handle forest fires in the province.

"We have filed the lawsuit with Pekanbaru District Court. The trial will likely start in two weeks," Walhi's deputy director for Riau M. Tegus Surya told the Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Earlier this month Walhi sued seven regents and 20 forest concession holders and plantation companies over forest fires.

He said the governor and regents in Riau must be held accountable for the reoccurrence of forest fires as they were the authorities that issued licenses to firms that allegedly initiated or failed to put out forest fires on their lands.

In the lawsuits, Walhi has demanded the governor and regents stop issuing licenses to clear land or convert land into plantations, fight the fires in protected forests and set up health posts to help people who suffer acute respiratory infections resulting from the haze, he said.

The Riau provincial administration said it was to defend itself in court.

"We have set up a team to handle forest fires. The team has also searched for those who sparked the forest fires," Riau Deputy Governor R.A. Azis said.

Walhi said that this year alone about 50,000 hectares of forest in Riau had been destroyed, inflicting losses of about Rp 2.3 billion on the country in the form of health problems, forest ecosystem destruction, decreasing water resources and unproductive farm land.

A Malaysian company, PT Adei Plantation, has been convicted by a local court for causing forest fires. Its director was sentenced to two years in jail and the company was ordered to pay US$1.1 million in compensation to the government.

PT Cipta Daya Sejati in Kampar regency was also convicted but the punishments meted out were light. Three perpetrators were sentenced to between three months and six months in jail.

Meanwhile in Pontianak, the West Kalimantan provincial administration was attempting to rid Supadio airport from haze by granting compensation to farmers who do not burn down their farmland within five kilometers of the airport.

Under the compensation scheme, the farmers will be allowed to shift their land for fishery activities or aloe planting activities for three months, Environment Management Agency (Bapedalda) environmental damage and pollution management regional head Wawan Hermawan said.

Wawan said that in the long run, the farmers would be encouraged to use organic fertilizers so they did not have to burn their land.

Slash-and-burn methods are considered the cheapest and most effective way to clear land before planting. Besides, ash from the fires is believed to be a good fertilizer.