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Young firefighter killed battling inferno in Borneo orangutan habitat

Efforts to extinguish the fire around Sungai Buluh Kecil, in the Tanjung Puting National Park area, mid-September 2023.

Efforts to extinguish the fire around Sungai Buluh Kecil, in the Tanjung Puting National Park area, mid-September 2023. Image by Kobar Fire Team.

  • Said Jaka Pahlawan, an oil palm plantation foreman, was killed on Sept. 30 while fighting a fire in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park, a key orangutan habitat.
  • The 23-year-old worked for PT Kumai Sentosa, a plantation company that had been fined in 2019 by an Indonesian court over wildfires on its concession.
  • The fire this time around was in the national park, where Jaka and other employees went to tackle the blaze as government firefighters responded to fires elsewhere.
  • Friends of the young firefighter told Mongabay that Jaka was a dedicated professional who had participated in conservation activities in the area.

PANGKALANBUN, Indonesia — An employee of a palm oil company sanctioned by Indonesia’s Supreme Court in July over wildfires was killed in late September while fighting a major fire in Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park, according to the man’s family and a hospital official.

Said Jaka Pahlawan, who was 23, died in late September as workers from plantation company PT Kumai Sentosa rushed across the border of the national park to push back a wildfire approaching the company’s concession.

Kumai Sentosa staff said they lost contact with Jaka at 2 p.m. on Sept. 30 as company workers battled to control a blaze inside the national park. His body was later transported to a hospital in Pangkalanbun, the second-largest city in Central Kalimantan province.

Testimony from Sungai Cabang village in early October indicated the fire had encroached on land operated by the company and local community in the Sungai Buaya area.

Riky Irawan, a resident of Sungai Cabang village, said Kumai Sentosa staff panicked as the fire approached, and sent all available hands to combat the fire.

The fire destroyed around 50 hectares (124 acres) of community plantations, where residents grew banana and coconut palms, Riky said. The community had previously supplied bananas for a program to release captive orangutans back into the national park, he added.

“For the next few months or years, it looks like we will no longer be able to produce coconuts and bananas as before,” Riky told Mongabay Indonesia.

Jalil Harahap, an executive of Kumai Sentosa, said an employee of the firm had died while tackling a blaze in Tanjung Puting, characterizing the death as a tragedy beyond the company’s control.

“We are victims — the fire came from Seruyan,” he said, referring to the neighboring district. “The fire is in the national park. We’re helping to fight it there so it doesn’t spread to the plantation.”

Jaka’s uncle, Said Yusuf, told Mongabay Indonesia that Jaka’s body was remitted to the family on Oct. 1. The 23-year-old had suffered burns to 90% of his body, according to the director of Sultan Imanudin General Hospital in Pangkalanbun.

Friends described Jaka as dedicated and professional.

“He worked hard,” one friend said.

The fire from the Tanjung Puting National Park area entering the Sungai Panggang Village area on October 2, 2023.
The fire from Tanjung Puting National Park entering the Sungai Panggang village on Oct. 2. Image courtesy of Sungai Panggang residents.

Court fine

Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry sued Jaka’s employer, Kumai Sentosa, in a civil court in 2019 over a 2,600-hectare (6,400-acre) fire in August 2019 on its concession bordering the protected orangutan habitat.

The company lost the case, but appealed the judgment to Indonesia’s Supreme Court, which in July this year upheld a 175.2 billion rupiah ($110 million) fine in addition to requirements to restore the land damaged by fire.

Civil society welcomed the judgement and called on the environment ministry to enforce the court’s ruling.

While the company is not liable for the current fires, it has procured hundreds of water pumps, constructed 11 watchtowers along its boundary with the national park, and mobilized up to 300 personnel to fight the blaze, according to Jalil. He said the company’s readiness exceeded the minimum standards required by government.

“Our preparedness, our infrastructure, is more than enough — more than the minister of agriculture’s decree,” Jalil said.

Orangutan reservation

Tanjung Puting National Park spans more than 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of tropical lowlands in the south of Borneo, straddling the two districts of West Kotawaringin and Seruyan. The park is a major orangutan habitat.

Numerous hotspots were detected inside the park in September, but confronting fires before they spread can prove challenging, fieldworkers said. Access to the interior requires hours-long journeys upriver, complicating efforts to extinguish nascent fires before they grow out of control.

Kumai Sentosa said the company had sought to tackle the fire early using water dropped from helicopters.

“It was too big already — it was massive,” Jalil said.

Naoval Aqli, an environment ministry firefighter based in Pangkalanbun, said his team had contributed to the effort to extinguish fires in the park, but that firefighters were later forced to triage resources. This apparently left Jaka and the other Kumai Sentosa firefighters as the primary responders.

“[The national park fire] couldn’t be extinguished, but it could be controlled,’ Naoval told Mongabay Indonesia. “As there were many new fires in the city, we returned to the city.”

Naoval said his team of 54 firefighters was responsible for five districts — East Kotawaringin, Lamandau, Seruyan, Sukamara and West Kotawaringin — as well as the national park, covering a combined area of 5.42 million hectares (13.4 million acres), or almost twice the size of Belgium.

In early October, only one team was on standby in Pangkalanbun, with the remainder seconded to fires in East Kotawaringin and Sukamara.

Forest and peatland fires in Sungai Panggang village, directly adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park on October 5, 2023.
Forest and peatland fires in Sungai Panggang village, directly adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park on Oct. 5. Image courtesy of Sungai Panggang residents.

Forest guardians

Basuki Budi Santoso, a conservationist who has worked extensively in Tanjung Puting National Park, blamed the long delay between hotspots being detected and the arrival of responders.

“It took a very long time,” Basuki told Mongabay Indonesia. “The hotspot started in the Perlu River area, but it took weeks [for firefighters] to arrive.”

Some local sources attribute fires in the park to deer hunters, who use fire to corral deer to a location where the animals become easy prey.

“It took a long time for the fire to reach the [national park boundary]. These cases happen often. And they get handled only weeks later,” Basuki said.

Basuki has almost two decades of experience working in Tanjung Puting, where his organization, the Friends of the National Park Foundation, has planted hundreds of thousands of trees.

In 2015, Basuki earned the title “Guardian of Tanjung Puting” after organizing volunteers to tackle fires that threatened the seedlings. When he was in high school, Jaka himself was a member of the group.

“A great fire has taken you away from all who loved you,” Basuki wrote on social media in tribute to Jaka.

“You died on the land you wanted to save from being scorched by fire,” Basuki wrote. “It is an honor for me to have met you. Farewell, Said Jaka Pahlawan; farewell, brave young man.”

Banner image: Efforts to extinguish the fire around Sungai Buluh Kecil, in the Tanjung Puting National Park area, mid-September 2023. Image by Kobar Fire Team.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Oct. 14, 2023.

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