- Haze-causing fires are continuing to burn in Indonesia, especially in West Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.
- The CEO of PT RAPP, a subsidiary of Indonesia's second-largest pulp and paper company, said the canals his firm was accused of digging recently in order to drain peat soil for planting were actually meant to serve as reservoirs to aid firefighting in the burned-out concession.
- Indonesia's peatland restoration agency is investigating the company's activities.
A NASA satellite detected 140 hotspots in West Kalimantan on Monday as smallholders in the province continued to burn land for agriculture, Indonesia’s disaster management agency said on Tuesday.
Data from Global Forest Watch shows the district of Ketapang recorded 144 fire alerts over the last seven days, 44 of which were in the subdistrict of Hulu Sungai. The number of fire alerts in Ketapang is more than double the number in Melawi, the district with second-highest number of fires. Both districts are contiguous and lie to the south of provincial capital Pontianak.
Indonesian state media reported that the disaster management agency had dispatched Bell 214 and Bolco helicopters to drop water on fires while the air force was operating cloud-seeding flights in the area. A total of 3,500 personnel were working to extinguish fires.
Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has pledged to significantly curtail annual wildfires before his term as president ends in 2019. The government’s ability to mitigate fires will in part depend on the success of the peatland restoration agency, known as the BRG, that Jokowi created in January by decree to rehabilitate 2 million hectares of peat.
The agency operates in a politically awkward corridor between Indonesia’s environment and agriculture ministries, where civil servants’ competing priorities have long restricted efficient government. This week, however, the agency saw its authority enhanced after a pulp and paper firm was reprimanded by the government and its chief executive apologized for obstructing inspectors at a controversial site a week ago.
Agency chief Nazir Foead and his team were in Padang Island, Riau Islands province, to inspect a concession held by PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP). Padang Island is part of one of four sites selected for priority rehabilitation by the BRG. Inspectors were obstructed by security guards on reaching the border of the concession, with one identifying himself as being connected with Kopassus, a military special forces unit. This particular inspection was prompted by reports from the local community that the company had dug drainage canals in deep peat soil in violation of a 2014 regulation.
RAPP chief executive Tony Wenas apologized for what he characterized as a misunderstanding. “There is an opening of firebreaks and reservoirs as part of prevention of land and forest fires,” Wenas said.
Foead told Singapore state media that the BRG would establish a team to check on the depth of peat in the concession. “We saw only one canal, so now we need to see the whole area,” he said. “So far, we have listened to them…that the canals function as reservoirs but we need to find out for ourselves.”
Foead has pushed for the company to revise its 10-year working plan and to abandon any plans to replant acacia. Jikalahari, an environmental NGO, said the government should act immediately. “The government should permanently discontinue the development of canals in peatland on Padang island by PT RAPP,” said the NGO’s coordinator, Woro Supartinah.
The deputy head of an Indonesian parliamentary commission said he would look to question PT RAPP on its activities in Padang island. “I have proposed to the head of Commission IV of the DPR [House of Representatives] to summon the directors of PT RAPP to explain the situation,” said the commission’s deputy chair, Viva Yoga Mauladi.
PT RAPP is a subsidiary of the APRIL conglomerate, Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper company. APRIL is an arm of the Royal Golden Eagle Group, owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto.
*An earlier version of this article said PT RAPP had been suspended from operating its concession, implying that the government had imposed the penalty. In fact, the company voluntarily suspended its own operations in part of the concession, while the environment ministry issued a warning to the company after an investigation by the peatland restoration agency.