Fires cast doubts on Riau firms' resolve

Fires cast doubts on Riau firms' resolve
Workers leaving a plantation hit by fire in Dumai, Riau province. The World Resources Institute (WRI) recorded that half of the fires are burning on land managed by pulpwood, palm oil, and logging companies

The recent surge in forest fires in Riau has raised questions over the commitment of major companies to fight open burning, as satellites revealed that the current number of hot spots exceeds the number that caused last year's choking haze.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) recorded that half of the fires are burning on land managed by pulpwood, palm oil, and logging companies.

"(Some) of the largest fires are on fully developed plantations, despite the fact that many of these companies are committed to eliminating fire in their management practices," said the WRI in a report led by analyst Nigel Sizer.

Indeed, many of these companies have pledged to support the government's fire-fighting efforts and reiterated their zero-burning policies.

A frustrated President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a series of tweets on the Riau burnings: "The burning land and the haze (that follows) are caused by extreme weather as well as residents and companies that burn their land."

The President has demanded that efforts to douse the fires be stepped up and declared he would take over if progress is slow.

The WRI recorded 3,101 hot spots in Sumatra between Feb 20 and March 11, more than the 2,643 found between June 11 and June 30 at the peak of the haze last year.

Seven of the 12 pulpwood company concessions with the highest share of fire alerts are linked to Sinar Mas, which owns Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). Four are linked to Asia Pacific Resources International (April), while the remaining one belongs to PT Perkasa Baru.

Both April and Sinar Mas, which have corporate offices in Singapore, have pledged zero deforestation policies and have threatened to stop using third-party suppliers who violate their policies. The companies have said that fires spread to their holdings from those set by surrounding small holders and farmers who burn to clear land.

April said in a statement that it was transferring 130 field staff from plantations elsewhere to boost fire-fighting efforts on Pulau Padang, in Riau province, where two newly planted blocs of acacia are burning.

The company already has 200 firefighters, 200 pumps and its contribution of three helicopters and 30 pumps and other resources in action.

APP has said it has increased fire patrols, built fire lookouts, conducted aerial patrols using helicopters and engaged local communities to fight fires.

Its managing director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement, Ms Aida Greenbury, said: "Our business is wholly dependent on properly managed land, so protecting the forests from fires and illegal encroachment is a priority for us.

APP spends more than US$4 million (S$5 million) per year, not including capital expenditure, on fire detection and response, infrastructure maintenance and personnel training, she added.

Still even this may not be enough.

Government officials have said companies need to scrutinise their third-party suppliers and provide updated maps showing suppliers linked to them.

"To act on evidence of burning, we need the companies to give us their concession maps showing their areas. Some have yet to do this, " said Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, chief of a presidential working unit, in an earlier interview.

Forest Peoples Programme's senior policy adviser, Mr Marcus Colchester, said there are still many unresolved cases of land conflicts between locals and companies.

This echoes the WRI findings that report some farmers are setting fires to deliberately damage or claim land controlled by larger companies.

"The best way forward to stopping deforestation and fires is to engage with people, some of whom claim they have been manipulated to give up their land," said Mr Colchester.

Mr Gary Paoli, director of business and research development at Daemeter Consulting, an environmental consultancy, admits that palm oil and pulp companies still have a bad image.

"They suffer from a historical legacy - that many years ago, they used fire to burn land and did not do environmental impact studies. There are also a lot of bad actors, still," he said.

However, a move to go green is "gaining momentum", he said, and the good practices are not receiving enough attention.

Mr Agus Purnomo, Indonesia's presidential adviser on climate change, sees the pledges as double-edged swords.

"They put themselves up to public scrutiny and risk losing trust if violations are exposed," he said, noting that a lot is at stake for them as they risk boycotts by consumers if found guilty.

"With the intense scrutiny now, I am optimistic that they cannot afford to go back to old habits, but let's see."

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