Indonesian Islamic council issues fatwa against forest-burning

Indonesian police and military personnel extinguish fire in Riau on Aug 29, 2016.
Indonesian police and military personnel extinguish fire in Riau on Aug 29, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Jakarta - The highest Islamic authority in Indonesia has declared it a sin, or haram, for Muslims to intentionally burn a forest.

Dr Chuzaimah T Yanggo from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) told reporters on Tuesday (Sep 13) that a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, has been issued by the council in relation to the burning of land in the country.

"The fatwa specifically addresses the intentional burning of forest and plantation land, we are not referring to accidental fires," she said.

Citing a Quran verse, Dr Chuzaimah added that "an act of facilitating, neglecting, taking advantage of the burning of forest and plantation is haram" and therefore, "the controlling of a forest or plantation fire is mandatory".

The senior MUI member of the fatwa committee was speaking at a joint briefing by the council and the Environment and Forestry Ministry.

Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, more so in the rural areas of the country.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, who was also at the briefing, is hoping the move by MUI will drive home the message in rural Indonesia that it is morally wrong to use fire to clear land.

"Based on our experience, we understand that applying the law in its material form would not suffice," said Ms Siti. "But there is something more important, which is moral (values)."

Indonesia has been grappling with the issue of illegal forest fires - a lead cause of the annual transboundary haze crisis - for years.

To prevent a repeat of last year's record air pollution levels, which caused the death of at least 19 Indonesians and more than half a million to suffer from respiratory illnesses, Indonesia has been coming down hard on culprits who use fire to clear land, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Despite the recent crackdown on individuals and companies that use the slash-and-burn method to clear land, such fires still occur.

This latest action by MUI and the ministry comes after two recent incidents in Riau province, where locals prevented government officials from investigating farming violations, allegedly at the behest of errant plantation companies.

Ms Siti said her ministry is now in discussion with MUI on how the fatwa can be enforced, but a key challenge will be to communicate the new law to the public first because "Indonesia has a huge population and vast geographic area".

Dr Chuzaimah said the national and regional governments "must enforce the fatwa fairly" but she also urged the private sector to abide by the law.

The move by MUI was welcomed by observers such as Dr Badrus Sholeh, a senior lecturer at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"It is very clear in the Quran that man shall not damage the earth, indeed including by way of burning the forest," said Dr Badrus.

He added that the religious approach could support the government's efforts to eradicate illegal burning and called for local clerics to help to spread the word on the fatwa.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has deployed about 3,500 fire-fighters in West Kalimantan to contain fires that broke out on Sunday.

There were no significant updates on hotspots in Sumatra by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) on Tuesday due to a "partial satellite pass".

ASMC data, however, picked up scattered hotspots with localised smoke haze in West Kalimantan.

BNPB spokesman Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho in a statement on Monday that the fire-fighters were deployed in Kubu Raya, Mempawah, Landak, Bengkayang, Sanggau, Sekadau, Sintang, Melawi, Kapuas Hulu and Kayong Utara regencies.

"We are facing huge challenges on the field, among other things, the bad habit of burning forests to clear them for farming," said Dr Sutopo in an Antara news report.

Satellite data from the Global Forest Watch (GFW) website indicated that there were 295 fire alerts over Kalimantan on Sunday alone. Data from the BNPB recorded 351 hotspots in Indonesia on the same day.

Those figures, however, were nowhere near the 668 fires reported this time last year in Kalimantan.

Dr Sutopo said the new hot spots were caused by "people who were burning land during the day", adding that some regencies, such as Ketapang and Sambas, have yet to raise their emergency status so that national fire-fighting resources can be deployed to help.