It all begins with a lit match: Long odds in hunt for forest fire culprits in Indonesia

It all begins with a lit match: Long odds in hunt for forest fire culprits in Indonesia

Indonesia forest fire
Fire raging in Jambi, Indonesia on Sep 25, 2019. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

JAMBI, Indonesia: A man in Muaro Jambi regency wanted to clear his land to plant coffee, and the easiest way was to light a match and fling it into the vegetation.

When the fire spread quickly, he panicked. Then, someone called the police.

“Based on a tip-off, we caught him red-handed and seized the evidence,” Commissioner Adjutant George Pakke, head of Muaro Jambi’s crime and detective unit, told CNA.

The man was among the three suspects nabbed last month by the Muaro Jambi police for setting their lands on fire, since hotspots emerged in late July.

Dominated by peatland, the regency has the highest number of hotspots in the Jambi province, with an average of 300 to 400 hotspots last month.

Air quality deteriorated as fires raged, with Muaro Jambi cast in an alarming hue of orange-red on Sep 21 due to scattering of sunlight by micro particles in the air.

Indonesia's forest and land fires aerial view
Jambi blanketed in smoke on Sep 25, 2019. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

The Jambi province in central Sumatra is one of the six Indonesian provinces experiencing raging forest and land blazes, which sent thick, choking haze blanketing the skies last month.

According to the national disaster agency, the air pollution in Jambi was worse than the situation in 2015, when a major haze crisis sent harmful smoke across parts of Southeast Asia.  

Provincial police said they have so far detained 41 smallholders and two company representatives on suspicion of starting fires.

Special crime director Grand Commissioner Thein Tabero said police were doing their best to catch the perpetrators, but it was not an easy job.

“The challenge is they (the perpetrators) throw a cigarette and then they run away … They are not dumb. They don’t throw the cigarette and then wait till the fires become large,” he told CNA.

Indonesia's Muaro Jambi disaster agency trying to extinguish fires
Firefighters battling a fire in a palm plantation. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

The police also faced other challenges such as difficulty in accessing remote places and limited manpower, he added. 

The police, eager to pin down the suspects, have appealed to the public to feed them accurate information. But many people affected by the annual haze have remained sceptical about the real impact of police enforcement actions.

Meanwhile, green groups and experts continue to point their fingers at palm companies and peatland owners, stressing that the blazes were caused by humans.

They are demanding stricter enforcement and stronger penalties to put an end to the problem once and for all.  

READ: Indonesian forest fires putting 10 million children at risk: UN

LOCALS LAMENT ALLEGED LACK OF PUNISHMENT

Most of the burning happened at night to escape watchful eyes.

Jambi police Mr Tabero said he would not risk sending his men into the dark, when visibility is further reduced by the thick smoke.

“It is dangerous as the forests are home to wild animals, which could emerge anytime.

“Officers have to take into account the possibilities of dealing with snakes and even the Sumatran tigers, although no such case has happened so far,” he said.  

Indonesia's fireman battling fires
A member of the Muaro Jambi's disaster agency extinguishing a fire in Muaro Jambi regency, Jambi province. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

While swiftness of arrival at the scene is key to catch the perpetrators, Mr Pakke from the Muaro Jambi police force said the remote locations have also proven to be a challenge.

“Sometimes when we arrive at a location after a long drive, the suspects are already gone,” he said.

Mr Pakke said tip-offs from the people are really helpful in catching the culprits.

"Information such as 'next to my house there's fire', 'fire at the back of my house' or 'my neighbour is starting a fire' is useful.

“It shows that some people already have the awareness to share such information with us. They understand the danger of forest and land fires," he said.

READ: Palm oil from conserved rainforest in Indonesia's Sumatra sold to major brands, says forest group

However, while some lauded the police effort, locals said more has to be done.

“They say they have caught the perpetrators, but what happen to them, we don’t know,” elementary teacher Mdm Desniwati said.

Jambi-based taxi driver Mr Amiruddin Noer wondered about the companies which own the burnt land.

“Apparently it’s not just individuals who set the land on fire. There are a lot of companies too, but they are untouchable by the police,” he claimed. “I don’t know why the authorities can’t catch them.”

Indonesia's soldier fire
A soldier washing his feet after putting out a fire in Jambi, Indonesia. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

If convicted, those who start a fire will be fined 10 billion rupiah (US$706,600) and jailed up to 10 years.

However, Mr Rudiansyah, head of Jambi’s environmental group Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), said even if authorities have caught the suspects, it is not always easy to sentence them or find the real mastermind.

The challenges that hinder the sentencing process range from inadequate evidence to not having enough eyewitnesses, he added.

READ: Firefighters on frontline of Indonesia’s peatland blaze face uphill battle

REVOKE PERMITS OF COMPANIES WHOSE LANDS ARE ON FIRE: GREENPEACE

To curb forest and land fires, Greenpeace Indonesia suggested that the government introduce severe punishments for the culprits.

Its global head of forests campaign Mr Kiki Taufik said a recent finding showed that plantations as well as pulp and palm companies, whose lands were burned between 2015 and 2018, were not punished with serious sanctions.

“This will not deter companies from continuing the bad practice of burning forests and land.

“Therefore, we encourage the law to be enforced more seriously, such as by revoking the permits of companies whose lands are on fire.”

Burnt peatland in Jambi, Indonesia
Peatland that has been razed by fire. (Photo: Kiki Siregar) 

Mr Taufik also urged authorities to be more transparent in their investigation by announcing the identities of the culprits promptly.

He claimed that the government may not have the courage to disclose the possible involvement of big corporations.  

“On the ground, the government also needs to have teams to monitor lands that have been sealed, so the owners would not be able to access and work on the lands,” he added.

READ: Indonesia government considering harsher punishments for forest burners

National disaster agency head Mr Doni Monardo, meanwhile, said the problem has to be tackled at its roots – drumming awareness into the public mind by teaching disaster prevention in schools.

“Educate them from an early age so that they have a real understanding of the danger of forest and land fires,” he said.

Indonesians should also plant crops that have high economic value, but are less harmful to the environment, he added.

"WE CAN SUE COMPANIES FOR NEGLIGENCE": POLICE

Across Indonesia, the number of hotspots have reduced significantly by 90 per cent following cloud seeding operations, the Environmental Affairs and Forestry Ministry said.

On Wednesday, the ministry announced it has sealed more than 60 companies – including 20 foreign-owned firms – which were thought to be responsible for fires throughout the country.

Jambi city
An aerial view of Jambi after artificial rain cleared the haze. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)
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WALHI’s Mr Rudiansyah said merely sealing companies is not enough.

“The legal process against companies responsible for forest and land fires is ineffective.

“For example, in 2015 a company was caught burning land and was later punished with criminal and civil sanctions, but now in 2019 the company’s land is burning again,” he said.

READ: At ground zero, Indonesians cry foul over inadequate response to fight forest fires

Jambi police said while they have difficulties catching the real culprits behind the blazes, they can sue companies for negligence as they are obliged to safeguard their concessions.

“If there is a fire, they have to extinguish it immediately. But companies, or at least the two companies we are currently investigating, have no facilities and manpower to deal with the fire.

“So they just let the fire happen. And the fire will creep into their land. This may be their tactic too,” Mr Tabero said.

Source: CNA/ks(tx)

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