The Root Cause of Forest Burning
THE repeated burning of the forests in recent years is proof that the state is powerless in the face of the corporations thought to be behind the fires.
Not only is it weak in investigating and punishing them severely, but the government also gives the impression of closing its eyes when these companies continue with risky methods of clearing land. Without resolve from the government, it is highly likely that there will be more forest burning in the future.
An investigation by this magazine along with Mongabay, Betahita, Malaysiakini, and environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara showed that activities to clear corporate land always end with repeated and more extensive fires in concession areas. For example, this happened in the Bumi Mekar Hijau concession area after the company was awarded a permit to exploit the 250,000-hectare timber forest in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra. In 2014, there was a fire covering 20,000 hectares in the company’s concession area. A year later, an even larger area was consumed by flames.
Initially the government tried to force Bumi Mekar to take responsibility by filing a lawsuit against the company. Although the Palembang District Court acquitted the company in 2015, a year later it was ordered to pay compensation of Rp78 billion by the South Sumatra High Court. Although this ruling should be appreciated, this compensation was relatively small compared to the Rp7.9 trillion that the environment and forestry ministry had demanded to cover the ecological damage and the costs of rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, it is unclear what happened to the government’s plan to appeal this ruling. Last year when there was once again forest burning in the Bumi Mekar Hijau area, nothing more was heard about the environment ministry’s legal efforts.
There were similar reports in the concession areas of Kalimantan Prima Agro Mandiri in West Kalimantan and Kumai Sentosa in Central Kalimantan. These three cases are important examples to understand why forests continue to be burned in Indonesia. Without law enforcement, satisfactory monitoring or attempts to create a deterrent effect, companies involved with burning forests will continue to repeat their actions. After all, for the oil palm and other plantation industries, burning is the quickest and cheapest way to clear land.
It is time this changed. The costs from burning forests are already too high. The World Bank estimates that the total losses incurred by Indonesia as a result of burning forests in 2019 were almost Rp75 trillion. As of last September, approximately 900,000 people had experienced breathing difficulties as a result of the smoke from forest fires. The losses resulting from the disruption to social and economic activities are incalculable. Every year, smoke drifts over to neighboring countries and damages global trust in Indonesia’s ability to extinguish the fires.
Although the area burned in 2019—estimated at around 1.6 million hectares—was far less than in 2015, when 2.6 million hectares were destroyed, the government cannot claim that it is successfully dealing with the forest fires. According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, a European Union weather monitoring service, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from forest fires last year were almost the same as in 2015. And in the last three years, the area of marshland set on fire has continued to rise. We know that fires in marshlands are difficult to extinguish.
At present, there is the impression that the government has no common view or commitment to preserving Indonesia’s forests. This is apparent from the move by the economic affairs ministry to roll out the red carpet for corporations through the proposed job creation bill. The bill, which is now being deliberated by the House of Representatives, will reduce the responsibility of corporations by changing Article 88 of Law No. 32/2009 on the protection and management of the environment. Originally, this article specified that companies had complete responsibility for any environmental damage in their concession areas, meaning that law enforcement authorities did not need to prove wrongdoing.
President Joko Widodo must immediately put things right with his subordinates and prove government’s commitment to stopping the burning of forests. Environmental conservation is a public interest that the government must address. Jokowi still has four years remaining in his second term to prove that he is on the side of a green planet. If the corporations that burn forests cannot be taken to court, Jokowi will be remembered as a president whose only legacy was ecological destruction.