Local chiefs urged to revoke burning law

A forest fire is seen from a helicopter operated by the National Agency for Disaster Management over Langgam District in Riau, Sumatra, in this Sept 23, 2015, file photo taken by Antara Foto.
A forest fire is seen from a helicopter operated by the National Agency for Disaster Management over Langgam District in Riau, Sumatra, in this Sept 23, 2015, file photo taken by Antara Foto. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesian legislation grants exemption to small-time farmers using fire to clear land

Indonesia wants its local chiefs to revoke a law that allows small-time farmers to clear up to 2ha of forested land using fire - this as a multilateral effort to put out hot spots in South Sumatra entered its third day yesterday.
 

Indonesian Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo called on regency officials to repeal Article 69, which under a 2009 environmental law bans the use of the slash-and-burn method to clear land for cultivation.

The law, however, exempts farmers who may still use the method, provided the land they burn does not exceed 2ha, or the size of four football fields. But these farmers will need to build blocking canals around the area to prevent the fire from spreading. 

Slash-and-burn practices have been carried out for decades across Indonesia, which has 35 provinces made up of more than 500 regencies and cities.

Each regency has its own bylaw detailing how the regulation can be implemented, such as when farmers burn the land and what crops they are allowed to cultivate.

REVIEW BYLAWS

Local leaders who have issued bylaws allowing farmers to burn to clear land must review the bylaws.

MR TJAHJO KUMOLO, Indonesia's Home Affairs Minister

Local farmers as well as plantation companies and their suppliers tend to use the slash-and-burn method because it is cheaper than hiring excavators to clear the land, but also because the ashes from the burnt vegetation provide calcium, which neutralises acidic peatland, making it more fertile.

Burning the land also greatly reduces the risk of the crops being infested by pests. 

Fires from peatland, however, have produced a thick haze that has blanketed many parts of the region from Indonesia to Thailand.

That is why Mr Tjahjo wants to put a stop to it.

"Local leaders who have issued bylaws allowing farmers to burn to clear land must review the bylaws," he said yesterday. 

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaigner Teguh Surya, yesterday hailed Mr Tjahjo's call, but warned that a major challenge is patrolling the huge concessions over peatland that the government has already issued.

Mr Tjahjo has also appealed to the regents to review the issued plantation concessions that are located on deep peatland, which catches fire easily during the dry season. 

Reviewing and revoking concessions on peatland would promise a better solution to help end the annual haze problem in Indonesia, Mr Teguh said. 

However, the focus of the government for now should be to deal with the raging forest fires causing the haze.

Indonesia has been grappling with the transboundary haze crisis for weeks now.

The smoke from the fires, often burning over dry peatland in Kalimantan and Sumatra, has affected millions across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as people in parts of the Philippines and Thailand in recent weeks.

The Indonesian government has started multilateral firefighting operations involving aircraft from Singapore and Malaysia.

The Indonesian authorities decided last week to deploy the majority of the multilateral resources to South Sumatra province, where conditions were the worst last week.

Water-bombing aircraft from Singapore and Malaysia have been deployed since Sunday.

But firefighting should cover all regions in Indonesia, Mr Teguh told The Straits Times yesterday, adding that the water-bombing drive in South Sumatra has led Kalimantan to be overlooked.

He said: "I'm now in central Kalimantan and the fires are raging wild here and no one is around to deal with them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Local chiefs urged to revoke burning law'. Print Edition | Subscribe