Minister blasts execs of firm that denied burning forest

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan at peatland that was still producing smoke from the fire underneath.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan at peatland that was still producing smoke from the fire underneath. ST PHOTO: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA

Retired general Luhut Pandjaitan, the most senior Indonesian official in charge of tackling the haze crisis, recalls how he once stuck his head out of a helicopter in midair to survey the damage done by forest fires.

That was decades ago when he was a young army major.

Last Friday, the former Special Forces soldier, now 68, did just that again. This time, over concession land under Bumi Andalas Permai, a supplier to Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper. The two companies share the same parent, Indonesia's Sinar Mas.

Mr Luhut, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, saw fires raging over thousands of hectares in the Ogan Komering Ilir regency. This, even though the firm had denied burning the forest to clear land.

The retired general landed at the office of Bumi Andalas Permai and vented his frustration.

"We flew low and I opened the helicopter door. All the fires I saw were on your concession," he said in a meeting attended by the company executives and military officers who coordinated soldiers deployed to South Sumatra to help douse fires.

"For almost 15 minutes, we hovered above your concession, practically all below was on fire. You are blaming the local farmers. I know it was you who burned the forest," Mr Luhut added.

Mr Sapto Nurlistyo, forestry operations director of Bumi Andalas Permai, said in the meeting - also attended by national police chief Badrodin Haiti and army chief Mulyono - that the company has a fire prevention system in place, with 160 water pumps and one helicopter ready for water-bombing.

The firm has a total of 192,000ha of pulpwood concessions, of which 108,000ha have been planted.

In addition to that, 8m-wide blocked canals line its plantations to help retain moisture.

"We did not expect it would turn out this bad," Mr Sapto responded to Mr Luhut.

"You have only one helicopter and your concession is more than 100,000ha. That is clearly insufficient," said Mr Luhut, again in a raised voice.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar disclosed a range of breaches by companies in terms of fire prevention that the ministry will follow up on, according to the minister's presentation booklet distributed during the Sept 30 ministerial coordination meeting on haze. No company names, however, were mentioned.

A number of firms did not have enough in-house fire control teams and staff had never been trained.

Companies had also failed to prevent fires with ground patrols and should have mapped fire-prone areas within their concessions, according to the minister. Other breaches were with fire control equipment and water storage.

"In January, February, March, you have to report what you have and what you plan to do. I will come back here in February to check," Mr Luhut told the company officials.

Some 1.7 million ha of forest and plantation land have been razed by fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan this year, mostly as a result of firms opting for the cheap slash-and- burn alternative to hiring bulldozers and other machines to clear land. "These soldiers and officers left their families at home to fight fires here because of your greed. If you want to cut costs, do not do it this way (burn to clear land). Find other ways," said Mr Luhut.

Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline Minister blasts execs of firm that denied burning forest. Subscribe