'Land for votes' link to rise in forest fires

'Land for votes' link to rise in forest fires
PHOTO: Reuters

New research has lent more weight to allegations about an illicit "land for votes" culture in Indonesia that inevitably leads to an increase in the number of forest fires during local elections season.

That is because there is a higher possibility of the land parcels, handed out as campaign incentives by errant regional leaders, being cleared for cultivation using the illegal slash-and-burn method.

Dr Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research who led the study, said satellite data has shown that there were more fires - which cause haze - within the year leading up to a regional election.

"We collected hot spot data from Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) satellites for 15 years from 2001 to 2015 - so we have the dynamic of hot spots every year," he told The Straits Times yesterday.

"And when I calculate that against each local election in Sumatra and Kalimantan... we can temporarily conclude that there is a significant connection between Pilkada (regional elections) and an increase in the number of hot spots recorded."

Dr Purnomo said the number of forest fires first started to rise in the 2004 polls, which was also the first time local leaders were directly elected in the country.

He also found that the number of hot spots was higher in 2006, 2009 and last year when polls were held, as well as this year. His study was limited to only Kalimantan and Sumatra - the two areas most affected by haze in Indonesia.

Voters in 250 districts throughout the archipelago will be taking part in regional polls on Dec 9.

The haze situation this year has been exceptionally bad, affecting millions across South-east Asia, surpassing the 1997 and 2013 crises. There have been 19 haze-related deaths in Indonesia so far, and over half a million people have been treated for acute lung infections.

The fires have also razed around 2.1 million ha of forests and peatland, and released large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The crisis, which has abated because of rain in recent weeks, has forced Jakarta to move into high gear to mitigate the problem.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said earlier this week that Indonesia has learnt its lesson and put in place measures to prevent a repeat of the crisis.

President Joko Widodo has ordered the police to get tough with errant farmers and firms that use fire to clear land. He has also banned the cultivation of peatlands, including those on concessions that have yet to be turned into plantations.

Yesterday, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said at a climate change event in Jakarta that Indonesia was committed to restoring its peatland and forests in five years.

The country had made a mistake in the past by allocating cultivation permits that led to the current levels of land degradation, he added.

He said it was therefore important for Indonesia to set up an agency specific to peatland restoration to prevent a repeat of this year's record-breaking crisis.

Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Reuters on the sidelines of the event that the fires could return early next year, but not on such a large scale. "In the third week of February, hot spots will emerge again, so indeed there won't be a break."

Dr Purnomo said he hoped that Indonesia's Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees regional elections, will keep a close watch on the issue in the upcoming Pilkada. "I have presented the research findings during a briefing (to the government). Hopefully, that will stop the use of land as a pawn of politics," he said.

This article was first published on November 14, 2015.
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