By Amy Chew

Corruption by Indonesian local governments and weak law enforcement are blamed by environmentalists for the recurring forest fires that spew noxious fumes over to Malaysia and Singapore.

Greenpeace Indonesia warned of more forest fires to come as the country approaches 2014 general elections as historically, local authorities give out land concession in exchange for funds for their respective political campaigns.

“This has happened in the past. I ask the public to be aware of this, to make sure that our forests and peatland are not sacrificed for political deals,” said Bustar.

Corruption by local governments often resulted in authorities turning a blind eye on fires started in the land concession held by large plantation companies.

“There are lots of corruption taking place at the local level. Foreign investors operating in Indonesia should not pay bribes so that they can carry out wrongdoings,” said Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaign.

While the central government has strengthened its efforts at reducing deforestation by placing a moratorium on the issuance of new land concessions since 2011, local authorities have not fallen in line.

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“It is very difficult to control everything at the local level,” said Greenpace’s Bustar.

On June 14, Riau governor Rusli Zainal was detained by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for his alleged involvement in two separate graft cases. One of them involved a forestry permit case.

Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry confirmed the central government has not issued any new land permits since 2011 but admitted there were instances of local authorities giving out licences.

The regents (in a province regency) has the authority to issue land permits,” said Hadi Daryanto, secretary-general of Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry.

Prior to Indonesia’s ousting of the late autocractic President Suharto in 1998, land matters was controlled by the central government.

As part of the reform process, Indonesia devolved power from the center to the provinces right down to the regencies in 1999.

Consequently, deforestation increased exponentially as provincial governors and regents used their newfound authority to issue land permits at will.

In 1998, deforestation totaled two million hectares per year. In 2001-2003, the rate rose to 3.5 million hectares per annum, according to the Forestry Ministry.

“The euphoria of 1999-2003 over Regional Autonomy without governance resulted in the high rate of deforestation,” Daryanto added.

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Currently, the central government practically only holds 15 per cent of the authority to protect the forests, with the other 85 per cent in the hands of local administrations due to regional autonomy, according to Daryanto.

To rectify the problem, the Indonesian Parliament is currently debating a bill to withdraw the right to decide land matters from regents and instead place the authority in the hands of provincial governors.

“The Parliamentary debate is still going-on,” said Daryanto.

Greenpeace’s analysis of NASA hotspot data in Sumatra 11th to 21st June revealed hundreds of fire hotspots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies.

Bustar said large Malaysian and Singaporean corporations need to “clean-up” their suppliers to ensure they are not engaged in setting fires to clear the land.

Large companies source for supply from smallholders who typically cultivate between 2 to 5 hectares of land. Small holders account for 35% to 40% of Indonesia’s total palm oil output.

“They (large plantations) need to raise the awareness of smallholders not to burn the land and supply them with machinery to chop down the trees,” said Bustar.

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“As plantation companies are large corporation with much resources, they must bear the greater responsibility for preventing fires,” Bustar added.

Forest fires from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan have emitted noxious haze to neighbouring countries in 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2008.

The haze in 1997 was one of the worst ever, as the fires burnt for months before they were put out, causing an estimated economic loss of US$4 billion to the region.

The severity of this year’s haze highlighted that little has been done despite the passage of time to eradicate this problem.

Indonesia authorities also face great difficulties in investigating the fires in the effort to bring guilty parties to justice.

“Quite a few (plantation) companies will put up a fight to prevent us (investigators) from entering their land to investigate,” said Indonesian fire investigator Bambang Hero Saharjo.

“Often, they (companies) also falsify their maps…making it difficult and time-consuming to verify the location of hotspots,” said Bambang.