Indonesian province moves to curb slash-and-burn clearances as fires rage

by Reuters
Thursday, 12 September 2019 10:57 GMT

A member of Manggala Agni (forest fire brigade) tries to extinguish peatland fires at a palm plantation in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, September 4, 2019 Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman via REUTERS

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The central government has sent more than 9,000 personnel to help tackle the blazes, dropped water from helicopters and used cloud seeding to encourage rain

JAKARTA, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Authorities in Indonesia's West Kalimantan province said on Thursday they had tightened rules to try and curb slash-and-burn clearances by plantation companies - a practice linked to a wave of forest fires.

Blazes have ripped through six Indonesian provinces in the past month, including West Kalimantan which borders Malaysia on the island of Borneo.

Some of Indonesia's neighbours, including Malaysia, have called for action, saying the fires are spreading pollution over their borders - an accusation dismissed by Jakarta.

West Kalimantan Governor Sutarmidji said he had issued a gubernatorial decree to make plantations responsible for the cost of putting out fires on concessions, state news agency Antara reported.

All plantations would be required to have the tools and manpower to put out fires, Sutarmidji, who uses one name, was quoted as saying.

The region last month issued rules allowing it to suspend permits for three years if a company is negligent about fires, or five years if it deliberately uses fire to clear forests, according to its website.

The fires, which government data shows have burnt an area of 328,722 hectares (812,290 acres) this year, are often started by farmers to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations.

The affected regions have declared states of emergency. The central government has sent more than 9,000 personnel to help tackle the blazes, dropped water from helicopters and used cloud seeding to encourage rain.

In the province of Jambi in Sumatra, students demonstrated at the local parliament on Thursday urging authorities to tackle the fires and the smoke, media reported.

The government launched the Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certified plantation in 2011 but has accelerated certification in recent years amid mounting global pressure to address the environmental impacts of producing palm oil.

The ISPO chairman said on Thursday that certification, which covers more than 5 million hectares of land, could be revoked for plantations found to be burning land on purpose.

Indonesia's government has sealed land operated by 30 companies, including foreign firms, and brought criminal charges against four, the forestry ministry's director general for law enforcement Rasio Ridho Sani told Reuters, without naming them.

"This may increase because my team is on the ground," he said via a text message.

In West Kalimantan, the government has issued notices for 103 companies and sealed 17 concessions, Antara reported.

Burning forests is already a criminal offence under Indonesia's 1999 forestry law.

(Reporting by Gayatri Suroyo and Bernadette Christina Munthe Editing by Ed Davies and Andrew Heavens)

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