Plantations say settlers to blame for starting fires

Indonesia Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan (holding a fire hose) during his visit to Simpang Mamugo in Dumai to witness efforts to put out plantation fires.

INDONESIA - Major pulp and palm oil companies admit there have been fires in their concession areas in Indonesia, but denied suggestions by officials and watchdogs that they were responsible for them.

They said they followed strict no-burning policies and demanded their contractors do the same.

But fires in neighbouring areas or parts settled by local communities were the issue, they said, adding that they had worked to put these out.

The companies' comments come as Indonesia's Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya, visiting Pekanbaru, identified eight of them, and said they were Malaysian-owned.

"If there is enough evidence, we will take them to court," he added.

At least 14 companies are being investigated, he said, and others may be named in the coming days.

Sime Darby Plantations, whose companies PT Bhumireksa Nusa Sejati and PT Tunggal Mitra Plantation (PT TMP) are among the eight named, had said it "is unable to exert control over activities beyond its operating areas and where it is occupied by others".

For instance, area residents lived on some 2,474ha of its 13,836ha TMP concession.

Sime Darby spokesman Leela Barrock added that TMP had been telling settlers on its lands not to carry out open burning, but it was ignored.

Last Friday, the World Resources Institute released data indicating that half the fires had begun on timber and oil palm plantations.

The largest number of hot spots were in areas belonging to Royal Golden Eagle, of which Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April) is part, and Sinar Mas Forestry, which supplies to Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), it said.

On Saturday, Greenpeace released its analysis, saying there were "hundreds of fire hot spots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies".

In a statement, April said these claims were "inaccurate and not consistent with the facts".

On Saturday afternoon, it said there were three fires in its concessions, covering some 20ha, but they had been contained and firefighters were extinguishing them.

"April confirmed that all fires it had detected originally started outside of its concession areas and had spread into its concessions," it said.

APP said ground checks found that only seven of 74 hot spots reported on June 20 in its suppliers' area in Riau were forest fires, affecting 200ha of land. An early investigation found that "five of the fires were set by the community to clear land for crops and two cases are still under investigation".

"We do not practise, and highly condemn, slash and burn activity for its detrimental impact on the environment," managing director Aida Greenbury told The Sunday Times.

Hot spots had also been identified on concessions listed as belonging to Singapore-listed Wilmar and First Resources.

First Resources said permits for some areas had expired many years ago and the land was never developed by the group.

A Wilmar spokesman said it had not been developing any new land in Sumatra.

"Hence the fires could not have been caused by us," he added.

"We have, however, discovered a few small holders with land near our plantations who have been burning to clear their land. We have reported them to the local authorities."

Greenpeace has called on big palm oil companies like Sime Darby and Wilmar to check whether their suppliers are involved in the burning.

Mr Bustar Maitar, who heads its forest campaign in Indonesia, said: "Fine words only go so far, but can these companies guarantee that they are not laundering dirty palm oil onto international markets?"

Additional reporting by Lester Kong in Malaysia