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Government indifference fuels forest fire disaster

Friends of the Earth International Press Release - October 1, 1997

Friends of the Earth International today called for immediate and effective action by the Indonesian government to combat the continuing forest fire crisis.(1)

Kevin Dunion, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, said:

The Indonesian government's failure to control the timber and plantation industries and their illegal burning has led to this massive social, ecological and economic disaster. The impacts of these fires on climate change will be felt globally, and the international community must hold the Indonesian government accountable. The government must act immediately to control the fires, provide compensation to those affected and enforce its own laws to bring these unsustainable industries under control.

Widespread forest mismanagement and unsustainable logging over the past decades has left the forests in an extremely poor state (2) and prone to fire. No prosecutions have ever been brought against plantation and timber companies for their widespread use of fire to clear land, even though it is illegal. Arimbi Heroepoetri of WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia, said: "The timber industry can be blamed for these devastating fires – and not natural disaster or agricultural practices of indigenous communities as the Indonesian government alleges."

The fires have caused a dangerous smog over much of Asia, with the Air Pollution Index reported to be six times the normal level in parts of Indonesia, and particulate matter more than double the level deemed safe by Indonesian authorities. More than 40,000 people have been hospitalized, and there have been 19 recorded deaths. Tens of millions of people have been affected across the region and the toll is rising.

The Indonesian government has been slow to act in the face of this global disaster. Although the fires started burning in July, the government only announced a relief package on 27 September. FoEI Chair Kevin Dunion called the government's proposed sum for emergency relief of Rp. 3.1 billion (less than US$800,000) "shamefully inadequate given the magnitude of the tragedy. The government spends more than a hundred times this sum to keep powerful pulp, paper and peat barons in business."(3)

In the absence of an effective government response, WALHI/ FoE Indonesia has established Emergency Posts in six affected communities. FoE International has issued an urgent appeal for smoke masks and donations to enable WALHI/ FoE Indonesia to continue meeting this immediate and practical need.

Other FoE member groups have also reacted to this crisis. FoE England, Wales and Northern Ireland has called for a halt to the UK timber trade with Indonesian companies implicated in the forest fires; FoE Scotland has called for the Bank of Scotland to suspend loans to the PT TEL pulp and paper consortium; and FoE Italy will be holding sit-ins outside Indonesian consulates.

WALHI/ FoE Indonesia and Friends of the Earth International call on the international community and citizens' organizations to hold the Indonesian government accountable for the widespread tragedy caused by the forest fires. The government has for too long flouted the calls of its people for an end to the corruption, incompetence, indifference and pure profit-seeking that has characterized the country's forest management policy.

Up to a million hectares of forest are burning in Indonesia (mainly Kalimantan and Sumatra), releasing 220-290 million tonnes of CO2 (for reference, this amount is equivalent to 50 percent of the UK's annual CO2 emissions.) The fire is also threatening over 1 million hectares of peat forest, and an additional 20 million tonnes of CO2 could be released if just the top ten centimeters of peat were to burn. In late 1996, the Indonesian Minister of Forests was reported as saying that 20 million hectares of forest were in a critical state and warned that the proportion could increase rapidly. For example: the Indonesian government subsidizes the aircraft industry to the tune of Rp. 400 billion (US$102 million) and PT Pulp & Paper, a plantation consortium, with up to Rp. 250 billion (US$64 million).

[Although not specifically mentioned, the aircraft industry refered to is the "state owned" Nusantara Aircraft Industry headed by long-term Suharto crony, Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie. The pulp and paper consortium is owned by Bob Hassan, a long term friend of Suharto and one of his most trusted business confidants - James Balowski].