Slash-and-burn law may be reviewed

Burnt trees after a peatland fire on the outskirts of Palangkaraya city, Kalimantan, on Oct 26, 2015.
Burnt trees after a peatland fire on the outskirts of Palangkaraya city, Kalimantan, on Oct 26, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA • Indonesia wants to review a law that allows small-time farmers to slash and burn up to 2ha of forested land for cultivation.

"We want to consider amending Law 32/2009, which allows the clearing of up to 2ha of land by burning," Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in Parliament yesterday.

"I have also requested a consideration to include measures to protect peatlands."

The reason for amending the law is that Indonesia's carbon-rich peatland, where thousands of hot spots have been detected during the current haze crisis, is now in critical condition, she said.

Ms Siti said her ministry will impose zones on peatland concession owners, even if they have previously been given licences to clear the land for crops.

"The granting of new licences and clearing of peatland will be stopped," she added.

This latest move comes after several concession owners blamed local farmers of the smaller 2ha plots for starting fires, which later spread to their plantations, resulting in uncontrollable flames that cause the toxic haze.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan also told The Straits Times last Saturday that the government plans to claw back concessions in peatlands that have not been cultivated to prevent companies from using the slash-and- burn method to clear land.

According to Ms Siti, licences to manage 6.3 million ha, out of a total of 31 million ha of peatland, had been issued as of last year.

She said yesterday that the government hopes to put in place a plan to restore the ecological functions of peatland.

Her remarks were echoed by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who also said yesterday that his country will hold an international conference on the restoration of peatland later this week.

According to government estimates, 2 million ha of peatland are currently burning.

A recent estimate by the Joko Widodo administration indicated that forest fires have ravaged at least 1.7 million ha of land in Indonesia.

The dry spell, exacerbated by a prolonged El Nino season this year, has made it difficult to put out the fires, half of which are burning on peatlands that are being drained and cleared particularly for oil palm and pulpwood plantations.

President Joko had extended a government moratorium on the clearing of forests for commercial cultivation in May.

Greenpeace Indonesia said yesterday, after a meeting with Mr Joko to discuss solutions to the haze crisis, that the President's decision to fight the fires by protecting the country's forests and peatlands and enforcing the law is a good first step.

"Now palm oil and pulp companies, whose decades-long destruction of forests and peatlands has caused today's fires, must respond in kind," said Greenpeace Indonesia country director Longgena Ginting.

Francis Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Slash-and-burn law may be reviewed'. Subscribe