RM5 the wage for land clearing

  • Helicopters deployed to sprinkle water from above. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

  • The rugged road from Pekanbaru to Dumai is choked with the smoke but residents still go on their daily chores as usual. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

  • Scattered fires still burning in the already charred oil palm estate. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

Translated by DOMINIC LOH
Sin Chew Daily

PEKANBARU, June 26 (Sin Chew Daily) -- Indonesia's forest fire expert says large plantation companies have been hiring the aborigines to clear the forests at RM5 per person, and using "land preparation" as pretext to clear the forest land legally!

Forest fire expert Dr. Bambang Hero Saharjo tells Sin Chew Daily large plantation companies have been making use of the existing legal loopholes in Indonesia to hire earthquake victims, impoverished residents and aborigines to conduct the "legal land clearings" since 2000 in a bid to save manpower and operating costs, paying each worker as little as Rp15,000 (RM4.80) to Rp1 million (RM323)

"Statistics show that 60% to 70% of existing hot spots have been caused by forest clearing activities while the rest due to logging."

Bambang Hero has dedicated himself to forest fire researches since the biggest ever forest fires in the country's history back in 1997.

"Why can they burn the forests legally? Because the provisions of existing Plantation Act is ambiguous. Indonesia's laws allow aborigines or tribesmen to clear the land through burning but limited to only two hectares per person."

However, Bambang Hero says based on his findings over the years, almost every hot spot is more than 40 hectares in size, which is not typical of the land clearings by the aborigines, adding that most of the hot spots are found in the provinces of South Sumatra, Jambi and Riau.

It is not hard to determine the source of forest burning. Scientists and forest fire experts only need to observe the colour of the smoke, the speed of fire propagation and study of the nature of the soil at the hot spots to determine whether the fires have been started by tribesmen or by large plantation companies hiring tribesmen to set the forests on fire using chemicals.

Failed cloud seeding attempts

To extinguish the forest fires, the Indonesian authorities have conducted several cloud seeding programmes but have failed five times. Pekanbaru has not seen a drop of rain for three weeks now.

After the cloud seeding attempts have failed, the government now uses water bombs to drop 500 litres of water from helicopters for 50 times but little effects have been achieved.

So far the Indonesian government has refrained from publishing the pollution standard index of various locations in the country. However, the visibility in Pekanbaru is merely 1km.

Accustomed

As the major hot spots are outside Pekanbaru, Sin Chew Daily reporters set off for the worst-affected Dumai at nine yesterday morning. Having passed scores of towns and villages and hundreds of miles of oil palm plantations, we finally arrived at the little coastal town charting dreadful PSI in excess of 900 points, after nine hours.

What shocks us is not the slightly improved air quality in Dumai to 500 as a result of the heavy overnight downpour, but the charred forests with smoke still spurting out from the ground along the way. Depressing and terrorising as we see it, local residents appear to be mostly unperturbed.

"Udah biasalah!" (used to it already) is the standard answer we get from the local resident approached by us, followed by a contemptuous look as we alight from our vehicle with the face masks on.

Although the visibility is under 100 metres, save for a couple of traffic cops on duty at the crossroad, ordinary residents are not even bothered to put on face masks. It's all business as usual in Dumai.

Mobile pedlars that hawk their stuff at congested road junctions continue to do so, while kids in school uniforms and pregnant women are seen chatting with people at the stalls as usual, gossiping more about the potholes on the road and increased fuel prices than the smothering haze.

Just as I was puzzled why the local residents are totally indifferent to their environment, an accompanying Indonesian told me, "You might have learned about the haze of Indonesia a decade ago, but we have known it since half a century ago!

"Haze is not so much a problem; having nothing to feed the stomach is."