Indonesian firms pay farmers to be slash-and-burn 'fall guys'

Indonesian government clamping down on such practices by errant plantation owners

Policemen and a firefighter from a forestry company trying to extinguish a forest fire in a village in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau province, in Sumatra.
Policemen and a firefighter from a forestry company trying to extinguish a forest fire in a village in Rokan Hulu regency, Riau province, in Sumatra. PHOTO: REUTERS

Pay a landowner in Sumatra as little as 500,000 rupiah, or just S$52, and he will clear his land for farming using the easiest and cheapest method possible - fire.

Throw in a few hundred dollars more and he will farm any crop, from oil palm to trees for pulpwood, on his land, which can vary in size from one to a few dozen hectares.

Such arrangements by plantation firms are not only common in rural Indonesia, but they also make locals ready "fall guys" for the companies when the authorities look for culprits of slash-and-burn violations, say green activists.

"The firms use the farmers as their shields, which absolve them of wrongdoing because it shifts the blame squarely on the farmers," said Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi.

Plantation conglomerates and their suppliers are often accused of turning a blind eye when farmers they pay to plant their crops use fire to clear land, he said.

Many are also suspected to have paid local residents to start the fires in their own concessions, so that they cannot be implicated if the fires spread and cause a haze crisis.

Mr Yuyun said firms have become more organised in the last three years, hiring middlemen to mobilise hundreds of villagers to burn land.

Groups such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and Greenpeace Indonesia say the hundreds of dollars paid to small-time locals in poor rural areas are generous by local standards.

Farmers can also multiply their earnings by using fire to clear land - all they need is a box of matches - instead of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to rent or buy hand-tractors.

The Indonesian government, however, has finally cottoned on to the ruse and is clamping down on such practices, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said.

Ms Siti said last week that some errant firms have formed organised groups backed by "mobile financiers", who The Sunday Times understands are middlemen hired by firms to make illicit payments to locals to start fires or gang up against land inspectors.

The minister spoke following two recent incidents in Riau province, where locals prevented government officials from investigating farming violations.

In the first incident on Sept 2, a mob threatened to harm her ministry officials if they refused to destroy photo and video evidence collected from the field.

In the second case three days later, Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) chief Nazir Foead and his team were blocked from entering a site to conduct their investigations by outsourced security guards.

Mr Nazir told The Sunday Times that many companies in Riau are guilty of using fire to clear land but blame farmers for the misdeed.

Walhi agreed, adding that hired security guards sometimes use violence to get their way. Its members had been "chased away with knives by security people" at plantation sites. These locals paid to be private security guards or gangs are indirectly bankrolled by some plantations.

Indonesian Oil Palm Smallholders Union coordinator Mansuetus Darto told The Sunday Times that it is not uncommon for firms to pay off farmers to cover their own tracks and bribe local authorities to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities.

"The firms also pay huge sums to some individuals to take the legal rap when there's trouble," he said.

The government and police have been criticised by environmental groups in the past for being slow to take action against errant firms.

Last month, Indonesian lawmakers said they were investigating a controversial decision by the police to drop charges against 15 companies allegedly behind forest fires in Riau province last year.

The move came after Walhi and the Riau Forest Rescue Network reported that fires were recently detected on land owned by eight of the 15 companies.

Ms Siti has since vowed to get tough on the companies, while the police, which have received flak for letting the firms off the hook, have thrown their weight behind her.

National police chief Tito Karnavian has promised that any land and forest fire case involving companies in the future will be solved together with legal and forestry agencies at the national level.

"All cases will be made open so there won't be any more untoward suspicions," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline Indonesian firms pay farmers to be slash-and-burn 'fall guys'. Subscribe