Indonesia: Public warned as fires destroy 700 ha of forest, plantations in Riau

Rizal Harahap and Severianus Endi The Jakarta Post 19 Apr 16;

The general public were warned about the possibility of massive forest and land fires on Monday, after fires ravaged a total 700 ha in Meranti Islands regency, Riau province, over the past three months.

Acting head of the Meranti Islands Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) M. Edy Afrizal, said the worst fires occurred in March, during which over 500 ha were burned.

“All nine districts across Meranti Islands regency experienced forest and land fires. What was different from one district to another was simply the area burned,” Edy said, Monday.

He said that the fires had burned through rubber and sago plantations belonging to residents as well as an industrial forest that belonged to PT Sumatera Riang Lestari (PT SRL), a concession company in Parit Jawa village, Tanjung Kedabu subdistrict, Rangsang Island.

Of the 100 ha of land burned in Tanjung Kedabu, 30 ha had belonged to PT SRL, Edy said.

“We are still waiting for further instruction regarding the burned land in the concession area,” said Edy, adding that there had been a regulation stipulating that burned concession areas would be taken over by the government preceding the revocation of licenses.

He also said that, as of Sunday, all the fires had been extinguished due to the rains that had fallen across almost the whole of the Meranti Islands.

However, he called on the community to remain on alert and immediately report any sign of fire to the BPBD. That way fire could be extinguished as soon as possible.

“We also call on companies to be cooperative. Please report concession area fires to the BPBD immediately,” Edy said.

He also reminded them not to clear land using burning methods. Meranti is dominated by peatlands which, he said, caught fire with relative ease.

“Once a fire has begun within a peatland area, it can be very difficult to extinguish,” he said, reminding people of the severe forest and land fires in the region in 2014.

Meanwhile the executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment’s (Walhi) West Kalimantan chapter criticized mass media for failing to raise awareness of issues regarding forest and land fires during the recent period of respite.

He said that mass media tended to raise the issue of forest and land fires only when the resulting haze was already thick and neighboring countries had begun to complain.

Spokesperson for the Environment and Forestry Ministry, Novrizal, expressed similar criticism, saying that mass media could play a role beyond times of severe fire.

He said that if the media were to play a constructive role, both in the context of prevention and as a responsive act, it would significantly help to control forest and land fires in Indonesia.

According to the ministry’s website, the total area burned in West Kalimantan in 2015 was 995 ha, a significant decrease compared to the 2014 fire season which saw 3,556 ha burned due to forest and land fires. The total area of the province is 147,307 square kilometers.

The site also indicates that forest and land fires in Riau burned 2,643 ha in the same year, followed by Jambi with 2,217 ha.

According to World Bank research, the forest and land fires caused Rp 221 trillion in state losses in 2015. The figure equals 1.9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, twice the amount of the reconstruction fund required as a consequence of the 2004 Aceh tsunami.

Separately, Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Zamzami said that, in collaboration with Global Forest Watch, his organization had developed an interactive map called Peta Kepo Hutan (forest curiosity map) last year, which anyone, including mass media, could access through the Greenpeace website.

“This interactive map was developed to push mass media and youth involvement, to make them more sensitive to environmental issues including the emergence of hot spots that, through the map, can be detected within 24 hours,” he said.