Conservation news

Photos: Forest fires rage on Sumatra oil palm concessions

  • As Indonesia’s annual fire season gets underway, swaths of carbon-rich peat forests are being razed, and the subsequent toxic smoke has blanketed parts of Jambi province on the island of Sumatra.
  • Dozens of hotspots have been detected on farmland, oi palm concessions, and even inside a protected peat forest in the province, according to the local disaster management agency.
  • Mongabay visited one of the burning concessions, where minimally equipped workers are fighting to put out fires that have been burning for days without end.
  • The workers deny that the oil palm company set the fire on the concession, claiming it started in a neighboring village. In 2015, three company employees were charged with setting fires on the same concession, though none were ever convicted.

JAMBI, Indonesia — Clouds of haze have blanketed parts of Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, as slash-and-burn clearing to make way for oil palm plantations rages on.

The provincial disaster management agency reported 62 fire hotspots between Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 on farmland and plantation concessions held by palm oil companies PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA) and PT Kaswari Unggul.

Some hotspots were also detected in the Londerang protected forest, where WWF-Indonesia and the national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) had been carrying out efforts to restore and conserve the carbon-rich peat soil. These efforts have long been viewed as less than effective in preventing the burning of peatlands.

Experts have warned of an exacerbated fire risk this year as a result of an intense dry season and El Niño weather pattern. This year’s fire season is expected to be the worst since 2015, when similar conditions led to the razing of  more than 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of land, much of it peat forest. The fires each year are set deliberately to clear land for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, and the haze they generate can travel as far as neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

Jambi province, in red, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Image by TUBS via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Mongabay Indonesia visited the fire-hit concession of PT ATGA, where workers were trying to put out the fires that had been burning for days.

“Last night, [the fire] was so horrible that we couldn’t even handle it,” said Yusro, one of the workers, adding that his team had received help from a government task force to fight forest fires.

Wearing a disposable surgical mask and wielding a 20-meter (66-foot) hose, Yusro directed his team’s efforts to spray water from a nearby canal onto the fire. Overhead, a helicopter passed back and forth, dropping water every 10 minutes.

Yusro denied that the fires on PT ATGA’s concession had been set by the company to clear land for planting oil palms, saying they spread from outside the concession. “The fire started from a village located some 4 kilometers [2.5 miles] from here,” he said.

In 2015, three employees of PT ATGA were charged with setting fires that burned 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of the same concession. Only one, a manager, was brought to trial, before being acquitted in 2016.

The burning this time around has spawned clouds of smoke that have spread to nearby villages.

“Last night, I couldn’t sleep because the smoke entered my bedroom,” said Bambang, a resident living near the concession. “My kids have also been coughing in the past couple of days. I hope the fires will be gone soon.”

Smoke from burning hovers above an oil palm concession owned by PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA). Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
Workers try to put out a blaze on the PT ATGA concession. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
Scorched land on the PT ATGA oil palm concession. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
Smoke from burning blankets the PT ATGA oil palm concession. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
A sign warning of fire in the Londerang protected peat forest. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.
Burning in the Lorendang protected peat forest, where WWF-Indonesia and the national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) had been carrying out efforts to restore and conserve the peat soil to prevent it from burning. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Sept. 6, 2019.

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