Sumatra burns in palm oil rush

Sydney Morning Herald

Michael Bachelard

This photo made available on June 29th, 2012 showing numerous illegally lit fires continue to rage the peat swamp forest of Tripa, SOCP/YEL (Handouts/Editorial use ONLY)

THE carbon-rich peat forests of northern Sumatra are burning again as palm oil companies break Indonesian law to clear the land for their plantations.

Environmental groups have warned that the local population of critically endangered orang-utans are ”doomed” unless the fires are stopped.

And smoke from the burning is at times engulfing cities in Malaysia and Thailand, prompting doctors in Kuala Lumpur to warn people with respiratory problems to wear masks.

Photos from the Tripa peat forest in Aceh show widespread burning, which the Indonesian environment ministry’s head investigator, Syarifudin Akbar, estimates now covers almost 2000 hectares.

”This is a criminal case because the law says it’s a crime to open a land by burning,” Mr Akbar said.

Environmentalists say the fires were lit by palm oil companies and threaten about 200 orang-utans in the area – one of the densest populations in the world.

More than 3000 of the great apes once lived in the area being cleared. Now just 7000 survive on the whole island of Sumatra, which has been hit in recent years with uncontrolled clearing of primary forests for palm oil plantations.

The latest fires were picked up by satellites last week and confirmed by field staff working for environmental groups.

The environment department, the national police and the government’s REDD task force are investigating.

A spokesman for the task force, Achmad Santosa, agreed the forest burning was ”an issue of law enforcement” and ”exactly the job of the REDD task force, that is to ensure the enforcement of the law”.

The head of the REDD task force, Kuntoro, visited Aceh yesterday to speak to the Governor and check the situation.

But Kamaruddin, a lawyer for the Tripa community, said the various investigations under way were ”proving to be too little too late” and called for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intervene.

”These companies simply have to be ordered to stop [clearing] immediately and that order to be strictly enforced, otherwise the peat forests and inhabitants of Tripa will be lost forever,” he said. Dr Yudhoyono has won global plaudits for saying ”deforestation is a thing of the past” and that ”losing our tropical rainforests would constitute the ultimate national, global and planetary disaster”.

But that has not stopped the annual ”burning season” of forests in Borneo and Sumatra as companies take advantage of dry weather to prepare the ground for new plantations.

”Despite all these words and statements and speeches about conserving orang-utans and peat lands and reducing carbon emissions … the evidence is there has been no change,” said Dr Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Program.

Part of the area being burned is owned by palm oil company PT Kallista Alam, which was granted a concession now under challenge in the Indonesian courts. Former Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf said he granted the concession as a wake-up call to the international community over its inaction on a carbon pricing mechanism in Indonesian forests. However, a company spokesman said it had nothing to do with the fire, which had blown into its area from a neighbouring site. The owner of that land, PT Agro Maju Raya, could not be contacted.

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About endoftheicons

The Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia is in grave danger. Local politicians want to allow logging, mining and palm oil plantations in this vulnerable area. Sumatran orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers are already hanging on by a thread. They will not survive the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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