Palm Oil Firms Burning Indonesia Forests
JAKARTA -- Palm oil companies are burning peat forests to clear land for plantations in Indonesia's Riau province, despite government pledges to end forest fires, environment group Greenpeace said on Thursday.
Forest fires are an annual menace for Indonesia and the country's neighbours, who have grown deeply frustrated at the apparent lack of success in curbing the dry-season blazes and vast smoke clouds, or haze, that smothers the region.
Apart from the health risks to millions of people and damage to the environment, the smoke also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, fuelling global warming.
The government has pledged to cut the number of fires by half. A 2004 law prohibits plantation companies from using fires, or any other means that cause environmental damage, to clear or cultivate land.
Blazes have started flaring again since the end of June with the start of the dry season. Satellite images collected by the Forestry Ministry showed 124 "hot spots" in Riau on Sumatra island last week, more than other provinces in the country.
Riau is just across the Strait of Malacca from Singapore and Malaysia.
"The endless cycle of forest fires and forest destruction in Indonesia must now be seen as a global phenomenon because our country contributes a lot to climate change," Greenpeace Forest campaigner Hapsoro said in a statement.
"Beyond the frequent lip service and rhetoric coming from officials whenever these fires flare up, the government must take bolder measures to prevent the problem from taking place," he said.
"The government must strictly enforce laws against violators including oil palm companies and plantations which deliberately start these fires as part of their land-clearing operations."
Heavy rain and water bombings extinguished most of the latest fires during the weekend but the threat was far from over, Hapsoro said.
The group showed a video from a trip to the area, showing swathes of burnt peat forests with tiny patches still on fire.
Indonesia has a total forest area of more than 225 million acres (91 million hectares), or about 10 percent of the world's remaining tropical forest, according to Rainforestweb.org, a portal on rainforests (www.rainforestweb.org).
But the tropical Southeast Asian country -- whose forests are a treasure trove of plant and animal species including the endangered orangutans -- has already lost an estimated 72 percent of its original frontier forest.
The country is now the world's second-largest palm oil producer and has about 5 million hectares planted with oil palm. The government aims to develop an additional 2-3 million hectares by 2010.
The palm oil industry says it abides by government rules.
"The government has classified areas and has rules and we obey them. It is not what people from outside think that we just come, clear land and burn," Derom Bangun, executive chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, told Reuters in an earlier interview.
A World Bank and British government sponsored report placed Indonesia as the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, releasing two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year because of deforestation and forest fires.
Indonesia has about 20 million hectares of peat forests and peat swamps. When drained or burnt, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide in the air.