Indonesian oil palm companies in line of fire

Janika Gelinek, The Jakarta Post, Indragiri, Riau

At first sight it appears to be a boy's scout camp, hidden in the forests of Sumatra. But it only takes a 50-meter stroll behind the camp to realize that the young people who have gathered there from the surrounding villages are not simply nature lovers enjoying their time in the forest, because there is nothing left of the forest.

Destroying the forest was like creating a desert.

"What we can see here right now is the last stage of the clearing, the systematic destruction of the forest," said Hapsoro from Greenpeace Southeast Asia two weeks ago.

"What we are hearing going on with the chainsaws is the conversion of the forest into oil palm plantations, which is going on right now, as we are talking."

Four hours by car from Pekanbaru to Rengat in the province of Riau, and another three hours on the Indragiri River, Greenpeace and local organizations Jakalahari and Oasis have set up a camp in order to curb the destruction of Indonesia's peatland forests and draw attention to its impact on climate change.

The camp is constructed entirely of hewn coconut palm wood to avoid the use of illegally logged timber and accomodates about 50 participants.

They monitor peatland change and watch out for hornbill birds. They have also built a tall seat that provides excellent visibility of forest fires and have painted banners and hung them in the trees: "Save the forests. Save the climate".

"Once the loggers have moved on, the burning of the peatland starts. These fires burn the roots of the trees. The trees fall down and what does not fall down gets cut down. In the last part of the process, excavators move in and clear the area for oil palms," Hapsoro said.

In fact, in a place where forest once extended for as far as the eye could see to the north and to the south, there are now blackened stumps, dry peatland and stagnant canals.

Among the burned stumps, fresh oil palm saplings can be spotted, indicating what is being exchanged for the peatland forests: oil palm plantations.

This is likely to incite more than one fervid discussion at the upcoming climate conference in Bali in December, where governments will gather to strengthen the international agreement for combating climate change: the Kyoto Protocol.

Fighting climate change in Bali while forests are burning in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua is quite a difficult undertaking. The destruction of its peatlands is one of the reasons why Indonesia has become the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, according to Greenpeace.

To offset the global warming caused by Southeast Asia's peat drainage, fires and deforestation, the restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol would need to be multiplied. Therefore, the aim of the conference, to set the world on course to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, is closely linked to the future of Indonesia's peatland forests.

Mursyid M. Ali, the head of Kuala Cenaku village, Riau, has seen one too many forest fires and been disappointed one too many times by the carelessness of the authorities.

"A big fire has been set here by the oil palm companies, which according to their permit will open the area as wide as 16,000 hectares. When the last big fire happened here in July 2007, we reported the situation, even to the State Ministry for the Environment. They even sent some people to check. But then nothing happened," he said.

Mursyid, as well as other community leaders, was shocked when he realized how far the company's permit -- which was issued by the local authorities -- in fact extended.

"We did not know the area was so big, the concession map covers everything: the fields, the offices, all nine villages in the area," Mursyid said.

Therefore they have begun to protest the use of the land, which they say is their ancestral heritage. They have complained to the authorities and tried to speak to the palm oil company, PT Duta Palma, which has neither made an ecological assessment of the land nor attempted to come to an agreement with the local communities, according to Mursyid.

"Usually people are either being put under serious pressure by the palm companies or have cleverly been talked into participating. But if people understand enough about the issue, how tricky the company can be, they will seek other ways. Like in the area close to the camp they do not talk to people at all. They don't ask anybody. They just burn," Hapsoro said.

He and his colleagues have invited experts from the Palangkaraya University in Kalimantan to carry out measurements of the peatlands.

In theory, Indonesia has a regulation prohibiting development where the peat is deeper than three metres, but this has proved to be a regulation that is rarely enforced. Not even for the peatlands of Riau, where the peat is between five and eight metres thick and, once burning, the fire is almost impossible to put out.

"Riau is the worst area for forest fires, every year", explains Erly Sukrismanto from the Forestry Ministry's fire department. "Peat soil is highly flammable. Once you put the fire under the surface, it will go down, maybe one or two meters. And it is very hard to fight."

And this is not the only difficulty Erly is facing. "Usually the burning is intentional. Most of the fires are like that. That is the big problem," he said.

He has come all the way from Jakarta in order to train local communities in the prevention and control of forest fires.

"So when Greenpeace came to us and said they wanted to conduct fire-fighting training, particularly to help local communities, we said, you are very welcome," Erly continued.

For three days, instructors from Manggala Agni worked with local people and Oasis volunteers in the fields close by the camp.

At night, they returned dirty, soaking wet and happy. "This is important training," said Sita, one of the four females among the 45 participants.

"We care very, very much about the forests here and want to help wherever we can."
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