Legal cold water on Indonesia's forest-fire haze

Since early July, smog has blanketed parts of Southeast Asia. Riau province wants to prosecute the plantations.

In the dry season, from March to September, the plentiful wood and grass burn particularly well here in east Sumatra. Thick clouds of smoke choke the afternoon air. A giant electrified sign on one of the main roads in the provincial capital, Pekanbaru's air-quality meter, frequently reads "very unsafe."

Surveying a smoldering wasteland that just hours ago was a patch of tropical forest, a smiling worker says, "This land is for a plantation," as he takes a large unburned log to pieces with a chainsaw.

Although the fires are illegal, it is an open secret that most are started deliberately, to clear the land for oil- palm plantations. But as almost no one has ever been prosecuted, there is little for anyone to fear.

Winds carry the smoke north and east, never reaching Jakarta - but affecting Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand - and disrupting flights around Sumatra's main city, Medan. Smog forced the closure of Medan's airport for part of last week. In September 1997, when the smoke was even worse, Indonesia's worst air crash killed 234 people.

The 1997 fires prompted action plans from affected countries in the region, but they have proved ineffective: The fires and the smoke keep coming back.

But now, Riau provincial authorities, Indonesia's Environmental Protection Agency, and the police are collaborating to prosecute four wealthy plantation firms, widely suspected of paying others to light fires on their land - not for arson, an avenue which has repeatedly failed. The charge will be damage to the environment.

"The problem we have always had is that we cannot find people who saw fires being set. According to the Indonesian law we need witnesses for arson," says police Senior Inspector Sudaryanto, who is coordinating the move.

An expert from one of Indonesia's top institutes on plant sciences, Bogor Agricultural University, has been called in to examine samples from burned sites. "If he says go ahead with the cases, we will go ahead, says Mr. Sudaryanto. "We are optimistic."

Circumstantial evidence linking the fires to plantation companies is strong. All around Kerinci, a town southwest of

Pekanbaru, new oil palm trees are sprouting up in land still full of charred stumps. Some of the land is secondary forest, burned a long time ago and regrown since. But a few years ago some of these plantations were virgin tropical rainforest, some of the last in Sumatra.

Imagery from the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite is one of the few tools those trying to uphold the law have on their side. Around 180 "hotspots" were identified in a single day in July, each representing an area of fire.

Since 1997 several bodies have been set up to analyze the satellite photos, most with international funding. The borders of the fires often coincide with the borders of a single plot of land, whose landholder can be identified through map cross-referencing. Ironically, some of the firms implicated have Malaysian investors.

In theory, proving damage to the environment is much easier than proving arson, although officials are working in untested legal waters. Indonesia's current environmental-protection law was only passed in 1997. The palm-oil companies generally have the use of the land for a 20 to 30 year period under contract with the government, which includes a clause stating that they cannot allow fires on the land.

Of course the plantation firms, some with ties to disgraced former president Suharto and his friends, have proved more than a match for the poorly equipped police and Environmental Impact Management Agency. With no helicopters, it can take investigators hours to reach the scene of a fire, by which time it may have gone out. Fire-fighting equipment is also very scarce.

If these four cases do succeed, it may be a milestone in Indonesia's efforts not only to stop the smoke but to save what remains of its forests. Forest-cover maps of Sumatra show how in just a century it has gone from a densely forested island to one where forests are rare. In 1997 alone, more than 12 million acres of land burned.

Indonesia sets "conversion targets" for certain provinces - forest land that is to be turned into plantations. Around Pekanbaru, the roads are packed day after day with trucks carrying massive loads of logs. Both tropical hardwoods and commodities like palm oil are major exports for Indonesia. Logging firms take the largest pieces of wood, and fire finishes off the job to prepare the land for oil-palm seedlings. Within a few years, the land is producing palm oil. Despite the country's public pledges to protect its forests, the conflict is obvious.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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