Forest fires rage on Sumatra oil palm concessions, Indonesia
Clouds of haze have blanketed parts of Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, as slash-and-burn clearing to make way for oil palm plantations rages on. The provincial disaster management agency reported 62 fire hotspots between 28 August 2019 and 4 September 2019 on farmland and plantation concessions held by palm oil companies PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA) and PT Kaswari Unggul. Some hotspots were also detected in the Londerang protected forest, where WWF-Indonesia and the national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) had been carrying out efforts to restore and conserve the carbon-rich peat soil. These efforts have long been viewed as less than effective in preventing the burning of peatlands.
Experts have warned of an exacerbated fire risk this year as a result of an intense dry season and El Niño weather pattern. This year’s fire season is expected to be the worst since 2015, when similar conditions led to the razing of more than 20,000 square kilometres (7 700 square miles) of land, much of it peat forest. The fires each year are set deliberately to clear land for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, and the haze they generate can travel as far as neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.
Mongabay Indonesia visited the fire-hit concession of PT ATGA, where workers were trying to put out the fires that had been burning for days. “Last night, [the fire] was so horrible that we couldn’t even handle it,” said Yusro, one of the workers, adding that his team had received help from a government task force to fight forest fires.
Wearing a disposable surgical mask and wielding a 20-metre (66-foot) hose, Yusro directed his team’s efforts to spray water from a nearby canal onto the fire. Overhead, a helicopter passed back and forth, dropping water every 10 minutes.
Yusro denied that the fires on PT ATGA’s concession had been set by the company to clear land for planting oil palms, saying they spread from outside the concession. “The fire started from a village located some 4 kilometres [2,5 miles] from here,” he said.
In 2015, three employees of PT ATGA were charged with setting fires that burned 1 000 hectares (2 470 acres) of the same concession. Only one, a manager, was brought to trial, before being acquitted in 2016.
The burning this time around has spawned clouds of smoke that have spread to nearby villages.
“Last night, I couldn’t sleep because the smoke entered my bedroom,” said Bambang, a resident living near the concession. “My kids have also been coughing in the past couple of days. I hope the fires will be gone soon.”