As forest fires on the island of Sumatra continue to blanket parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore with a thick haze, a coalition of civil society groups has called on Indonesia’s Ministry of the Environment to investigate timber and palm oil companies they believe may be behind the fires.
The coalition reported 117 companies to the Ministry of the Environment on Wednesday, including 84 companies holding industrial forest plantation (HTI) concessions and 33 palm oil and rubber plantation companies. The groups believe these companies – whose concessions overlap with satellite-detected hotspots – may have intentionally set the fires and urged the ministry to immediately investigate and take legal action.
“We allege that the fires did not simply just happen, but that it was in the interest of the companies, who clearly stand to gain a profit from the burning of the land and forests,” Muhnur Stayahaprabu, legal advocacy and policy manager for the national branch of Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi), a coalition member, said in a release to the media in Jakarta on Wednesday.
A Greenpeace activist bears witness to forest destruction in Riau Province, Indonesia. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
NGO analysis of satellite data has shown that the vast majority of fires are occurring inside concession areas. Preliminary reports have linked a number of big-name palm oil and pulp and paper companies to the fires, however investigations will be needed to determine whether fires were set intentionally to clear land – a practice that is illegal but still widely used in Indonesia – or whether deforestation and peat swamp draining in concession areas led to conditions conducive to fires. In its report to the Ministry of the Environment, the coalition called on the government to investigate and to take strong legal actions against both individuals and corporations responsible for the fires. They also urged the government to conduct environmental audits of the 117 companies and impose sanctions, including the revoking of licenses if necessary, should companies be found to be violating regulations.
Police in Riau province have identified at least 10 suspects in relation to the fires, though they are still looking into possible links between these suspects and plantation companies operating in the area. Indonesia’s Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has said that 14 people are being investigated for fire-setting, including 11 from plantation companies. Suspects could face five years in prison and have their operating licenses revoked if found guilty.
An excavator creates a canal in Riau Province, Indonesia, despite the heavy smoke caused by the forest fires. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
Members of the civil society coalition include the Riau, Jambi, and South Sumatra branches of the Indonesian environmental group Walhi, as well as Sawit Watch, Elsam, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law and Walhi’s national branch. On Tuesday, Walhi also sent a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, along with the ministries of the environment, forestry and agriculture, the National Police chief, and the governors of three Sumatra provinces affected by the fires. In the letters, Walhi said the government must quickly issue a policy to protect citizens from air pollution and must immediately take steps to address the problem and prevent future fires. The group also asked that the government evaluate all concession permits and arrest those responsible for starting fires and damaging the environment in concession areas.