Albion Monitor /Features
[Editor's note: See also Amazon Fires Worse Than Indonesia's elsewhere in this issue.]

Rainforest on Fire

By Jeff Elliott
With contributions by Azhar Basri, Andreas Harsono

on this topic
It is a disaster of the first magnitude. In some places, you can't see ten feet away at high noon. Songbirds refuse to sing. Officials are begging farmers not to shoot tigers appearing in their villages -- especially important because one species has been spotted that was thought to be extinct for twenty years.

Over one thousand forest fires have been burning out of control in 12 provinces of Indonesia since midsummer. It has created a haze over much of Southeast Asia that will probably linger for another month. Even then, the United Nations has said it has created a health crisis that will be felt for years -- pollution is ten times higher than levels considered safe.

More than 500 deaths connected to fires
The fires are mostly on the largest of Indonesia's islands, Sumatra and Borneo. (The Indonesian province of Kalimantan covers most of Borneo, but parts of the island are also owned by Malaysia and the tiny nation of Brunei.) As of early October, more than 3,100 square miles have burned -- about the size of Connecticut.

The only hope to end the crisis is the annual monsoon, but the tropical rains are late this year because of El Nino, which has also contributed to the forest fires by bringing dry, hot weather to this part of the world. El Nino has also created a drought, which caused the malnutrition and cholera deaths of nearly 300 people in one remote province. Efforts to air drop life-saving emergency supplies failed because the smoke was too thick to fly over the area.

Smoky haze was also blamed for the airplane crash in late September that killed 236 people, and at least five deaths have been caused by the foul air. The Minister of Health told Reuters last week that respiratory problems have increased 300 percent in some areas downwind.

Malaysia declared a state of emergency in mid-September for the state of Sarwak, its portion of Borneo island. Authorities ordered schools and non-essential public and private enterprises closed, with only shops selling food and medicine allowed to remain open.

As residents frequently use masks to breathe even indoors, some have begun to panic. One Malaysian man told IPS, "The haze is everywhere. Even in our air-conditioned rooms which look positively hazy also. Some people are becoming afraid and jittery, saying that once the API (index) hits 1,000 we will all die since there will be a general lack of oxygen in the air. And who is there to tell us whether this is true or not?"

Fears arise also in the countryside as animals escape from the burning national parks. The offical Indonesian news agency said one farmer was killed by a Sumatran tiger last week, and others have been recently sighted. Javanese tigers, thought to be extinct since the 1970s, were reported by firemen. Monkeys by the hundreds can be found wandering through farms in central Java.

"What we are seeing is a gross mismanagement of our forest by unscrupulous firms"
What caused this disaster? How do you start more than one thousand fires burning? Simple: land clearing by farmers and loggers. But determining who is responsible -- and to what degree -- is a matter of some controversy in Southeast Asia.

Ask timber baron Muhammad "Bob" Hasan and the blame falls on small farmers who follow the traditional pattern of burning rice fields and plantation cropland at the end of the growing season. Those fires are usually extinguished by the monsoons, but the rains have been delayed this year.

Hasan, who is also chairman of the Indonesian Forestry Association, conceded last week to reporters that there were some plantations that were "not professional enough" and may have improperly burned forest land. As for his logging companies, Hasan told the Singapore Straits Times, "We need the raw materials. So why should we burn them? We are not that stupid."

Environmentalist Emmy Hafild disputes Hasan's claim of innocence. "Of course they do," she told the newspaper. "It is too much of a hassle for them to collect them. The easiest way is to get rid of such materials by fire."

Head of the Indonesian Forum for Environment representing 335 citizen groups, Hafild told The Singapore Sunday Times, "What we are seeing is a gross mismanagement of our forest by unscrupulous firms out to make money." While fires are also set by small farmers, she told the paper that they usually burn no more than five acres, compared to the big logging firms burning at least 3,000 acres at a time.

Thanks to high resolution satellite photos available through a National University of Singapore project, it is easy to find exactly who is setting the fires. In one sequence, a Sumatra plantation is found expanding its territory by burning the adjacent forest. According to Hafild, 80 percent of the fires are caused by large operations such as this.

Tycoons are widely considered to be more influential than government officials
But identifying the culprits and prosecuting them are two different issues. The logging companies and plantations are owned by the richest men in Indonesia and cronies of President Suharto, Indonesia's dictator.

Yet at the end of September, an Indonesian government report named 176 different companies as responsible for conducting dangerous slash-and-burn activities to clear their land. Even as the report was issued, 14 of the firms were still continuing the practice.

Some of the 176 companies are owned by Indonesia's wealthiest figures, including Indonesia's top two richest men. All of them are politically well-connected. Indonesian environmentalists doubt that blame will be placed where it belongs, as the tycoons are widely considered to be more influential than government officials.

Hasan, for example, is a golfing partner of Suharto's who plays golf twice a week or more with the president, encouraging jibes here that Hasan meets with Suharto more often than government ministers usually do. Hasan is also widely known to be a trusted business advisor to the president, running the day-to-day affairs of several business groups including private foundations controlled by Suharto.

Another tycoon, Liem Sioe Liong, has been friends with Suharto since the 1950's, when the young lieutenant colonel Suharto was a military commander. Indonesia's Minister of Agriculture said that the government had given the companies until October 1 to defend themselves by filing reports on their activities, adding that he will first conduct checks in the field before taking punitive actions against erring companies. Since the deadline, officials only have said that three (unnamed) companies had already been prosecuted.

Hafild and other environmentalists insist that the parties responsible will be called to justice. Loggers and plantation owners have been illegally burning forests since 1982. "The only way to stop this practice for good is for the government to revoke the licences of companies that burn land," she told the Singapore newspaper.

Her group is preparing to take legal action against the firms responsible because the government can't be trusted to act. "Some people who caused the fires are enjoying the clear skies of Jakarta and playing golf but many others are suffering because of their actions. What an injustice," she said.

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Albion Monitor October 6, 1997 (

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