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Story Publication logo September 17, 2020

Companies Behind Forest Fires

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Fire tower guarding over peatland. Image by Slamet Mulyadi/Shutterstock. Indonesia, 2019.
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The fires that destroyed 1.53 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests and land in 2019 were...

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Trucks near a palm oil factory in Bengkulu province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Edgaras Sarkus/Shutterstock. Indonesia, undated.
Trucks near a palm oil factory in Bengkulu province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Edgaras Sarkus/Shutterstock. Indonesia, undated.

FINANCE Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati congratulated Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar four times. Siti was a fellow speaker in a virtual press conference on Thursday, August 27. The two ministers eagerly announced to the media that the Green Climate Fund (GCH), part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), had approved Indonesia’s budget proposal.

Sri always remembered to express gratitude every time she said her congratulations. The US$103.78-million funding, she said, signaled the world’s recognition of Indonesia’s commitment to environmental and forest conservation. “Hopefully what Ibu Siti and her staff have achieved can give the public better faith, that we will not only appear in headlines when there are forest fires,” said the finance minister.

Prior, Minister Siti had taken 20 minutes to start the press conference by explaining CGF’s reason to approve the funding meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In short, the Rp1.5-trillion is given due to Indonesia’s success in reducing emissions equal to 11.2 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2014-2016 through various programs aimed at slowing deforestation and forest degradation. “Land and forest fire mitigation became an important factor in reducing deforestation,” said Siti.

In her explanation, Siti also claimed that the government had succeeded in suppressing land and forest fires, which, she said, began occurring in Indonesia in 1982. The fires peaked in 1997-1998 with 11.89 million hectares scorched. “Indeed there were some fires last year, but we are trying to control it this year,” said Siti, before adding that only 64,000 hectares were burned in January-July this year.

The environment and forestry ministry’s data is indeed accurate. Land and forest fires destroyed as many as 1.65 million hectares of forest and land in 2019, lower than the 2.65 million hectares burned in 2015. But what was not discussed in the finance and forestry ministries press conference was that the dangers posed by the 2019 fires’ carbon emissions equaled the forest fires five years ago.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), an earth monitoring platform run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), for example, estimated that the total emissions from Indonesia’s forest fires on August 1-September 18, 2019, equaled 360 megatons of carbon dioxide, or almost similar to the impacts of the 2015 fires in the same period, with emissions equal to 400 megatons of carbon dioxide.

CAMS is certain that the fires were deliberately perpetrated to clear land, particularly for the pulp and oil palm industry. “It’s clear that the fires were unusual and created significant concerns,” said Mark Parrington, ECMWF senior researcher with CAMS, in a written statement on September 20, 2019. “Indonesia’s persistent and high levels of pollution undoubtedly pose a threat to human health, plants, and animals.”

Upon entering this year’s second semester, the old threat returns. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Fire Information for Resource Management System detects an increasing number of hotspots in Indonesia since July. Six provinces have implemented an emergency alert status for land and forest fires for at least the next two months, namely, Riau, Jambi, South Kalimantan, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan, and West Kalimantan. It seems that Siti Nurbaya must still refrain from feeling complacent.

•••

Three red excavators worked with their backs against one another, their long arms digging into the ground. One unit was cleaning the bank of a canal around the width of a badminton court, while two others, around 50 meters apart on the north side of a water channel going from east to west, worked on two squares for planting, whose corners were beginning to appear tidy with lines going over them.
These squares, in Bumi Mekar Hijau’s (BMH) concession, lie in Riding village, Pangkalan Lapam subdistrict, Ogan Komering Ilir Regency, South Sumatra. The brown-black soil that had been excavated contrasted the stands of acacia trees in the distance. Water left over from the rain over the previous two days still gathered in the corners of the peatland.

The scenery on Wednesday, May 20, severely contrasted the scenery seven months before. At the time, around the second week of November 2019, fires ravaged BMH’s plantation on the banks of the Sugihan River. Samson Bunyamin, Riding village chief, still remembers well how Riding’s residents panicked. The gathering smoke assaulted his village. “The wind was so strong,” he said.

Smoke also rushed through Jerambah Rengas, Riding’s neighboring village. Muhammad Syukrie described how the thick, white and black smoke billowed from behind trees. The chairman of the Makmur Sejahtera farmers group had to stand guard day and night, worried that the fire would spread into their estates. “At the time, it was almost impossible to put out the fire with water, so we created a firewall,” said Syukrie.

BHM supplies key ingredients for Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a pulp company that is part of the Sinar Mas Group. In Ogan Komering Ilir, the company controls a production forest six times the size of Jakarta.

The concession land owned by companies in Riding and Jerambah Rengas villages is the north production area. This concession block comes to 193,700 hectares, from north to south, from Pangkalan Lapam subdistrict to Cengal subdistrict.

One other block cuts through Gajah Mulya and Gajah Mati villages, Sungai Menang subdistrict—about 20 kilometers to the south of Cengal subdistrict. This 57,300-hectare block is on the north side of Way Mesuji River, which borders South Sumatra Province and Lampung Province.

This report focuses on these two blocks. Like the area around Pangkalan Lapam, BHM’s concession along the Mesuji Way River caught heavy fire in September to October 2019. Norman—not his real name —said water bombing helicopters continued to fly over Sungai Menang subdistrict, trying to put out the fires. After working over one week in the BMH concession, the Sungai Menang Regency resident said he had trouble breathing because of the smoke.

He was unaware as to where this year’s fires came from and suspected that the fires were caused by locals. “Some people would throw out cigarettes while fishing, or they would burn shrubs to find wood. Many reasons,” he said.

But satellite imagery shows a different cause. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite and Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer record that four hotspots emerged on BMH’s concession land, on the coordinates 105.60354, -3.88019, in the Gajah Mulya village territory, on September 11, 2019. Three days later, the number of hotspots grew to the north, spilling over the concession area.

Hotspots in the west, near Gajah Mati village, also appeared for the first time at the end of September 2019 in the company’s concession land, on the coordinates 105.5217, -3.8708. These hotspots spread to the north until the end of October 2019. Bumi Mekar Hijau’s concession land was like a canvas riddled with red polka dots, marking the hotspots in September to November 2019.

Satellite imagery from Sentinel-2 on November 9, 2019, shows a grim reality. BMH’s concession in Gajah Mulya and Gajah Mati villages had undergone a transformation. The previously green land had turned black-brown.

According to a land and forest fires forensic expert, Bambang Hero Saharja, hotspot analysis is one of the instruments used to reveal the origins of a fire. That a hotspot emerged for the first time in a concession area is often used as evidence in land and forest fire suits against companies. “Usually, the hotspots will appear to emerge at the time a company clears land,” said Bambang Hero, who has often served as a witness in land and forest fire cases. “This is irrefutable evidence.”

That morning, on Monday, August 24, right on the border of BMH’s concession land inside Gajah Mati village, Norman showed the location of the fire mid-last year. “Behind it, the canals have just been built, around 500 meters from here,” he said, pointing at a cluster of white paperbark trees. “Canals have to be built to dry land. If not, there would be flooding. Acacia can only be fought with fire and water.”

•••

THIS was not the first time Bumi Mekar Hijau’s concession land burned. The firm was also involved in a land and forest fire case in 2014-2015, and was given a Rp78.5-billion fine—far below the environment and forestry ministry’s civil suit of Rp7.8 trillion. In fact, the police was about to take the company to criminal court for the same case, but the investigation, which was already announced to the press five years ago, was never followed up.

APP Sinar Mas Chief Sustainability Officer, Elim Sritaba, stressed that her company has seriously responded to all land and forest fire issues in every business and supplier unit’s operational area. Reflecting on the 2015 case, she said, APP Sinar Mas has developed an integrated system for mitigating forest fires. “Our forest conservation policy requires, among others, all business units and supplying partners not to clear land using fire,” said Elim in a written response on Thursday, September 10.

But our investigation suggests otherwise. It is believed that land clearing occurred only moments before fire scorched BMH’s concession around Gajah Mulya and Gajah Mati villages. The first hotspot also appeared around land believed to have been prepared for planting.

Suspicion of land clearing is based on the appearance of canals and new planting blocks as recorded in satellite imagery from June to August 2019. It is believed that the canals were being built in stages for over 11 kilometers from east to west, cutting through Gajah Mulya and Gajah Mati villages. Prior, in May 2019, satellite imagery still showed that the area was green and unblemished.

When compared to the 2017 peatland hydrological area (KHG) map, the 2.8-kilometer canal, which was built last on the west side, also appears to cut through protected peat dome area of the Beberi River-Way Mesuji River KHG. Meanwhile, according to Government Regulation No. 71/2014, article 21, which was revised through Government Regulation No. 57/2016 on the protection and management of peat ecosystems, protected peat dome areas should only be utilized for research, science, education, and environmental services. Article 26 of the same regulation also forbids clearing new land and drainage channels in protected peat dome areas.

The satellite imagery matches Norman’s statement regarding the canals built by BMH to dry land. Furthermore, an investigation using a hidden camera on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, at the end of August also clearly shows BMH’s most recent concession land in the Menang River area.

These aerial photos show that the land that was ravaged by fires last year has been replaced with planting squares bordered with 9-meter canals. This canal network moves from west to east, and meanders left and right, forming the shape of a giant lightning.

A number of planting blocks alongside the main canal have been also in arranged lines as it is prepared to be planted. To the east side, still in the same new networks of canals, similar blocks and planting terraces filled with lines of acacia trees. “They did it fast. The company has many excavators,” said Norman.

Unfortunately, when Tempo tried to confirm, Bumi Mekar Hijau’s office in Jalan R. Soekamto, PTC Complex No. 1/62, Palembang, South Sumatra, on September 4, appeared quiet. The office, located in a shophouse complex, was closed. An employee at another office in the same complex said BMH had moved several months ago.

Elim Sritaba refused to meet in person and chose to respond to Tempo’s request for confirmation in writing. But she did not answer all of the questions in detail. Questions about fires on BMH’s concession land, for example, were not explicitly answered. Elim simply said that land and forest fires and mitigation efforts are both complex issues. “Although we don’t clear land using fire, based on our experience, it’s still possible for hotspots to emerge or fires to spread in our operational area,” she said.

Neither did she give a forthright answer to our question regarding canals and new planting blocks believed to cut through a protected peat dome area. According to her, APP Sinar Mas’ timber suppliers had given a peatland map based on light detection and ranging, and had surveyed peat depth in their respective concession area. These suppliers, said Elim, had received general working plans (RKU) with a revised peat ecosystem function map approved by the government. “The revised RKU serves as reference for APP’s suppliers in performing activities in their concession areas.”

•••

BUMI Mekar Hijau is only one out of hundreds of forestry and oil palm companies, whose concession land may have caught fire last year. There is reason to believe that at least 454 concessions were burned.

Kalimata Prima Agro Mandiri (KPAM) and Kumai Sentosa are on this list.

It is suspected that KPAM’s land in Manis Mata subdistrict, Ketapang Regency, West Kalimantan, was ravaged by fire in September 2019. Romanus Soekarno, 37 years old, a resident of Jambi village witnessed the fire first-hand. Chairman of the Jambi village Fire Awareness Society (MPA) was patrolling on a motor bike when a member of his organization called him to report on the fire on the east side of Berais River. This river cuts through KPAM’s concession land and is an area with high conservation value (HCV), which is monitored every day by the Jambi village MPA.According to Karno—short for Romanus Soekarno—all of MPA’s members attempted to put out the fire that had begun to spread to the HCV area. “But the fire was over 10-meter tall. We could only surrender,” he said when we met him at the end of August. The company’s employees, he added, were also mobilized from the office located on the north side of the area that had caught fire.

During those days, nighttime brought unforgettable scenery for Madi, member of the Jambi village MPA. “The fire was so red,” he said.

Mariana Septiana, Karno’s wife, also has a bad memory. She had to rent a speedboat and sail for 20 minutes along Jelai River, to reach the nearest doctor in the Sukamara subdistrict. Her second daughter had trouble breathing because of the smoke. “She lost her voice,” said Maria.

Like Bumi Mekar Hijau, KPAM is suspected of having cleared land for planting when the fire began. Satellite imagery taken on September 14, 2019, strengthens this suspicion. Squares of land for planting, which were non-existent two months prior, began to appear neatly lined up in the south side of the concession area. In this period, new planting blocks were still separated from the old blocks, which are believed to have been cleared in 2018. One week later, the land between the two plantations appeared like a crater, with fire licking at the sky.

At the end of August, the scenery in KPAM’s concession area was already starkly different. Fire no longer appeared. Rather, the burnt land had been transformed into new planting blocks, with new oil palm trees planted in rows on them. In another square, wooden stakes marking the plan for planting had also been neatly installed. Two trucks filled with young oil palm trees were seen on the move, heading toward the location.
Carl Dagenheart, head of stakeholder engagement of IOI Corporation Berhad, KPAM’s parent company, promised to deliver a written answer in response to Tempo’s request for an interview and confirmation regarding the 2019 fires in KPAM’s concession area. “We’re still gathering relevant information,” said Dagenheart in an email on September 10. But as of Saturday afternoon, September 12, the answer he promised had not come.

•••

IT is not easy to reach Sungai Cabang village, Kumai subdistrict, West Kotawaringin Regency, Central Kalimantan. It takes four hours to travel on a motor boat from Teluk Kumai to the village surrounded by Tanjung Putting National Park. No routine sea transportation is available there.

On Sunday, August 9, Sungai Cabang village had a different atmosphere compared to last year. Behind the village lies a 11,890-hectare oil palm plantation owned by Kumai Sentosa. Last year, around August 2019, forest and land fire is believed to have scorched over half of the company’s concession area.

Indirayanto, a resident of Sungai Cabang, does not remember precisely when the fire began. What is clear is that, at the time, Sungai Cabang residents and the company’s employees were playing volley in an event to commemorate the Independence Day. The match dispersed in an instance. Kumai Sentosa’s management summoned all of its employees to put out the fire on the company’s land.

After that, said Indirayanto, the situation turned tense. The fire spread quickly, ravaging banana, coconut, jengkol (Archidendron pauciflorumI), sengon (Albizia chinensis), burflower trees, and rubber orchards owned by locals, spanning 11 kilometers, only in a matter of days. “It’s not usually that fast. Orchards wouldn’t be destroyed. This time, they were gone,” said the 40-year-old man.

A Sungai Cabang resident, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed Indirayanto’s story. At the time, he was still working as a day laborer, which is why he joined the crew mobilized by the company to put out the fire. “When we put out the fire, the Robin (machine) broke. Some caught fire,” he said. “When we went home, it was as if the motor bikes were running on fire. After one month putting out the fire, I quit work.”
Satellite imagery found that hotspots emerged at the same time on August 21, 2019, outside and inside the company’s concession area. The hotspot outside the concession was inside the national park. But the distance between the two hotspots were around 5.5 kilometers.

It is believed that land inside Kumai Sentosa’s concession area was only massively cleared prior to the fires, including to build canals. Furthermore, the hotspot inside the concession area first emerged in the canal, which is believed to have been dug out in the third week of June 2019. Interestingly, the first 10 hotspots emerged in two rows, with uniform distances between them.

The new canal adds to the length of the canal network built in 2018. If compared to the 2017 KHG map, it is clear that the water channel that spans from the north to south tears into the protective function of the Buluh Besar River KHG. Now the location has been planted with young oil palm trees in a number of blocks. On the west side, a 10-meter-wide canal separates the concession area from the national park.

As of the time this report was published, Kumai Sentosa’s management had not responded to Tempo’s interview request. A letter sent to the company’s office in Jalan Raya Sungai Tendang, Kumai, West Kotawaringin, on September 9, went unanswered. The office appears as a regular house, with no sign board, on an empty plot of land with green excavators parked in the front.

On August 12, Kumai Sentosa’s attorney, Tahmijudin, told the press that his client will be cooperative in facing the land and forest fire case that will soon go to court at the Pangkalan Bun District Court, West Kotawaringin. “We will see the facts (as exposed) in court,” he said.

Kumai Sentosa’s fate is indeed different from Bumi Mekar Hijau and Kalimantan Prima Agro Mandiri’s. Both of the company’s areas are believed to have been badly burned in 2019, but only Kumai has been taken to court. The two former companies, affiliated with pulp and oil palm giants, appear unscathed. As of the time this report was published, not one official at the environment and forestry ministry’s law enforcement directorate-general was willing to be interviewed.

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