Indonesia: Sumatra warned over emergence of forest and land fires

Antara 15 Mar 16;

Pekanbaru, Riau (ANTARA News) - The Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency-Pekanbaru Station detected 42 hotspots in five provinces of Sumatra Island on Tuesday, of which 31 were found in six districts of Riau Province.

The agencys head, Sugarin, stated that 11 other hotspots, which were recorded by the Terra and Aqua satellites on Tuesday at 5 a.m. local time, were found in the provinces of North Sumatra, South Sumatra, Aceh, and Riau Islands.

The number of hotspots in Riau Province has increased from 24 to 31 over the past two days. Of the total 31 hotspots, 11 were found in Meranti Islands, nine in Bengkalis, seven in Pelalawan, two in Indragiri Hilir, and one each in Siak and Rokan Hilir, he revealed.

According to Sugarin, 10 out of the 31 hotspots in Riau Island were believed to be forest and land fires, with confidence level of over 70 percent.

In response to the appearance of these hotspots, Head of the Disaster Mitigation Agency of Bengkalis Districts Fire Brigade Division Suiswantoro revealed on Monday that several hotspots in the district were caused by the extreme weather during the dry season and the acts of irresponsible people who employ the slash-and-burn method for land clearing.

The hotspots were found in the sub-districts of Bantan and Bengkalis, he said.

The hotspots were detected in the palm plantation area of Muntai Village. However, Suiswantoro said he had yet to ascertain the total affected area, but most of the hotspots were found in peatlands.

He further added that his men had been making efforts to extinguish the fires.

Both the district and provincial governments responded to the discovery of hotspots in certain areas of Riau. The provincial government had even declared an emergency alert status, indicating the need to expedite the efforts to prevent and handle forest and land fires.

Last year, thick haze arising from forest and land fires affected Riau and several other provinces in Sumatra Island, crippling commercial flights and triggering acute respiratory infections among several people.(*)

Peat Fires Destroys 310 Hectares of Land in Meranti
Tempo 14 Mar 16;

TEMPO.CO, Pekanbaru - Fires across Riau's Eastern coastal peatlands have continued to burn - with at least 310.25 hectares of peat land destroyed in Meranti, along with 50 hectares of residents' sago crops.

Riau Province Disaster Mitigation Agency's (BPBD) Head of Emergency Response, Mitra Adhimukti, said that the fires have been reported across several districts, including the district of Rangsang, Merbau and Tebing Tinggi. "The hot weather and gusty conditions have made it easier for the fire to spread," Mitra said on Monday, March 14, 2016.

According to Mitra, a joint-squad consisting of the Indonesian National Police (Polri) and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) personnels - aided by volunteers - have been deployed to fight the spreading flames, but officials on the ground said that their progress is hampered by the absence of water sources at the location of the fires, as well as the squad's rudimentary and outdated equipments. "We are concerned that the fires may well spread into populated areas," said Mitra.

The Head of Meranti's Agency for Agriculture and Forestry, Mahmud Murod, said that the high incidence of fires in Meranti - aside from the fact that the area is dotted by peatlands, some reaching deep below the top soil - might be an indication that the fires were deliberately set by irresponsible parties, wishing to clear out forested areas to be repurposed for agricultural purposes. Furthermore, continued Murod, the majority of reports originate from fields and orchards belonging to local residents. "We have yet to receive any reports of fires breaking out in fields and forests that are owned by large corporations," Murod said.

Murod also said that peat fires will continue to happen in Meranti, as long as the government continues to move at a glacial pace to reform its' management of Meranti's peatlands. "There are currently 480 illegal irrigation canals built over Meranti's peatlands - all of these drain freshwater from the fields into the sea, which further dries out the area that is already prone to fires to begin with," Murod said.

"The central government needs to step in, as Riau's Administration does not have the means to deal with these illegally-dug canals," continued Murod, who said that Riau's Administration have proposed to seal off the canals to the Ministry of Environments and Forestry, but have yet to receive any response from Jakarta.

In recent months, continued Murod, the central government have indeed moved to aid the restoration of the area's peatlands through the Peatland Restoration Agency, which was forced by President Joko Widodo - but the Agency have yet to come up with a concrete action plan to deal with the situation in Meranti.

"All we want to do is to seal of the canals and ditches to ensure our peatlands remain moist, and to prevent it from drying out," said Murod. "We have to attack the root causes of the fires, instead of mitigating the aftermath of the disaster after it has happened - it is a waste of energy."


Forest burning continues in Lake Toba area
Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post 16 Mar 16;

Deforestation around Lake Toba in North Sumatra continues despite the central government’s plan to turn Southeast Asia’s biggest lake into one of the country’s 10 major tourist destinations.

Over 5 hectares of forest in Harian district, Sianjur Mula-Mula, Samosir regency, were reportedly razed by fire in recent days.

Tumpal Sijabat of Samosir suspected that the fire may have been deliberately lit to clear land for plantation purposes. “The fire has been burning for a week but efforts to extinguish it were very slow, so the whole forest has already burned,” he said on Monday.

Similarly, Marandus Sirait of Toba Samosir regency expressed concern over the condition of forests in the Lake Toba area, saying that most of the area had been damaged because of land clearing and illegal logging.

Marandus, who is also a recipient of the 2015 Kalpataru Award in the environmental pioneer category, said that deforestation was evident in Ajibata, Lumbanjulu and Bonatualunasi districts in Toba Samosir regency, Tele district in Samosir regency and Gersang Sipanganbolon district on the border of Toba Samosir and Parapat, Simalungun.

“It’s shameful to see the damage, especially because the government in the near future will turn the area into an international tourist destination,” Marandus told The Jakarta Post earlier this week.

He said he had repeatedly protested deforestation in the area but was never listened to. He even returned in 2013 the Wana Lestari Award he received from the forestry ministry in 2010 as an expression of protest.

He said serious measures had not been taken by local administrations to preserve forests in the area following the central government’s plans to make it a world-class tourist destination, the ground-breaking of which was recently conducted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“What will happen to Lake Toba if the forests are barren? One thing is for sure, it will no longer be cool and it will be less beautiful,” said Marandus, who manages the 45-hectare Eden Park property belonging to his family in Toba Samosir.

Samosir administration spokesperson Lemen Manurung admitted that there had been forest fires in Sianjur Mula-Mula and Pangururan but said they had been extinguished.

“According to information, the fire has been extinguished, but if it is still there we will check on it,” Lemen said.

Responding to a question regarding preparations to make Lake Toba a world-class tourist destination, Lemen said the administration was still waiting for a government decree on the establishment of the Lake Toba authority body.

“It’s the body that is tasked with coordinating the development of Lake Toba,” he said.

Jokowi visited the area two weeks ago to instruct relevant ministers regarding the acceleration of the development of the area into the “Monaco of Asia”.

He asked the North Sumatra administration and the administrations of all regencies in the area to work in synergy with the relevant ministries.

The government has allocated Rp 21 trillion (US$1.6 billion) for the development, Rp 10 trillion of which is from the state budget, with the remainder from the private sector. Most of the funds are allotted for infrastructure development.

The infrastructure to be developed includes a 116-kilometer toll road. With the new road, traveling to Parapat, on the shores of Lake Toba, from the provincial capital Medan, which currently takes five to six hours, will only take 90 minutes.

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