Rampant corruption fanned forest fires, say watchdogs

INDONESIA - It was probably coincidental that days after Riau Governor Rusli Zainal was arrested for corruption on June 14, forest fires in his province saw pollutant levels over the region rise to record highs.

However, it is no coincidence that more rampant graft has contributed to the severe haze now blanketing Riau, Singapore and parts of Malaysia, observers and watchdogs pointed out.

Part of the charges against Rusli, in office since 2003, involve the dishing out of illegal logging permits in Pelalawan regency.

While it is unclear whether forest fires occurred in these areas, observers said Riau has an alarming record of local leaders dishing out permits to companies to clear its forests over the past decade.

"There is a link between rampant corruption and today's forest fires," Mr Emerson Yuntho of graft monitoring outfit Indonesia Corruption Watch told The Straits Times.

"And the giving of permits tends to spike ahead of elections," he added, citing the need to fund campaigns.

Riau will see a gubernatorial election in October, and national parliamentary elections are to take place in April next year.

Anti-graft activists said there was a surge in the number of suspect concessions for mining and plantations across the country being approved ahead of the 2009 elections, and warned of another repeat.

Therein lies the potential for further disaster.

Emergency declared in Malaysia as API surpasses 750Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: AFP, Reuters )
Smoke from hotspots blanket Riau provinceClick on thumbnail to view (Photos: Hang Nadim Meteorological Station, ST, Reuters, AFP, Sarawak Conservation Alliance for Natural Environment)

Dr Helena Varkkey of the University of Malaya, who has researched oil palm plantations and their link to fires and the haze, said the illegal allocation of permits - especially on highly flammable yet fertile peatland - has been a serious driver of fires.

It is illegal to put peatland to commercial use in Indonesia.

But Dr Varkkey tells The Straits Times that "corruption and patronage linkages have enabled companies with good relationships with government officials to obtain licences and permits to use these peatlands for commercial purposes, despite the laws".

But obtaining land permits is just one stage where graft takes place.

Even when fires happen, observers said companies are able to get away if they have greased the palms of local officials to ensure their cases are not pursued seriously. And the cycle continues.

Dr Eduardo Araral of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy noted: "When enforcement is not credible and has no deterrent effect because of corruption, concession owners and their agents have the incentive to routinely flout regulations, and no amount of legislation or treaties would be effective under these circumstances."

Mr Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace International's Indonesia Forest Campaign, said companies often cite the need to indulge in graft to "fast track" their permit applications.

"But they are benefiting from the lack of governance," he told The Straits Times. "While it is the job of the government to clean up its act, companies have a responsibility to not be involved in incorrect processes as well."


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