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  Straits Times 16 Mar 07
Feeling the heat from deforestation in Riau
By Devi Asmarani, Indonesia Correspondent in Riau

BLACKENED tree stumps stick out from the scarred landscape, shrouded in thick soot. Their barks, as crinkled as the skins of reptiles, are still warm to the touch. Not a living thing is in sight.

A resident in the area says in despair: 'This is probably how the Earth will look like after Judgment Day.' Actually, it is what a peat forest looks like after its trees have been felled and then burned to make way for new palm oil plantations.

Welcome to this corner of Kuala Cenaku village, about 200km south of Riau's provincial capital of Pekanbaru.

The site was set ablaze in early January. Rain finally doused the fires after they consumed the land for days, blanketing surrounding villages with pungent smoke. At the height of the annual dry season, the haze from forest fires in Riau and other Sumatra provinces gets intense. When the wind blows east, it chokes residents as far away as Singapore and Malaysia, at times straining diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

But smog is just one peril of living in the province, where the rate of deforestation - driven by rapid growth in the palm oil and timber industries - has reached an alarming level.

When the wet season arrives, so do the floods. In November and December last year, the first torrential monsoon rains doused the remaining forest fires, but also inundated eight districts. Two people died and more than 10,000 lost their homes.

Closer to the hotspots, where the ecological balance continues to be off kilter, various tragedies unfold.

In Kuala Cenaku, plantation company PT Banyu Bening Utama started clearing a forest of almost 8,000 ha six months ago.

In the process, it laid waste to the livelihood of some 2,000 families in the surrounding area. The people had long relied on the forest for trading commodities such as rattan, honey and tree resins for oil and incense.

Said Kuala Cenaku village head Mursyid M. Ali: 'The government sold our land without our consent, without even consulting us. 'They robbed us of our forest and gave our children asthma from breathing the smoke.'

The conversion of tropical rainforests and peat swamp areas into plantations or industrial woodlands has also contributed to the destruction of biodiversity at a rate that would make any conservationist cringe.

Habitat loss and fragmentation make endangered animals like Sumatran tigers and elephants more vulnerable to poachers and more likely to come into contact with people - with potentially disastrous results.

Last year alone, elephants, driven to steal fruits from plantations and villages because of the destruction of their habitat, were blamed for the deaths of five people. The elephants fared worse: 23 were killed.

Mr Fitrian Ardiansyah, who is in charge of forest restoration and threats mitigation in the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia, said: 'What is happening in Riau is emblematic of what is happening across Indonesia.'

He added that Jambi, South Sumatra and West, Central and South Kalimantan - provinces with large tracts of peat land - are major haze hotspots, 'which is really just a symptom of an acute ecological illness'.

Satellite images of Riau gathered by the WWF over the past 26 years show that forest cover has shrunk from 78 per cent in 1982 to just a third of the 8.11 million ha province in 2005.

Most of the deforestation occurred in the past six years, following Indonesia's move to decentralise power and give regional administrations more authority.

Heads of regencies, which are administrations smaller than the provinces, were eager to give companies concessions to convert forest and peat swamps into oil palm plantations. They also gave permits to pulp and paper companies to clear natural jungles to make way for Acacia trees, a main supply for their mills.

Without drastic moves to reverse the trend, the WWF predicts that by 2015, about 94 per cent of Riau will have been stripped of its forests, leaving only 476,000 ha.

Now, the bad news for the rest of the world: Since 2000, most of the valuable dry lowland forest in Riau has been destroyed, leaving only peatland forests. Peat is rich, densely packed soil made up of dead organic matter that can store more carbon - which makes it more efficient than any other ecosystem in reducing greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

But burning or draining peat land releases enormous levels of carbon dioxide, a prime cause of climate change. The Wetlands International environmental group says two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from degraded peatland in the country every year.

When added to amounts released by fossil fuel burning, Indonesia becomes the number three carbon emitter on earth, after only the United States and China.

Half of the four million ha of peatland in Riau has already been cleared, drained or burned. High demand for oil palm has driven many companies and local farmers to convert more peatland into plantations. Many of them practise slash-and-burn tactics to clear and fertilise land.

Plantation companies deny practising this and blame it instead on errant plantation workers or trespassers on their land. Indonesian law requires extensive proof that a company has intentionally burned its land, making it hard to bring those responsible for fires to court.

But, as with the burned forest in Kuala Cenaku, it is hard not to pin the blame on these companies.

Government officials have been criticised for not tackling the root causes of the problems and reacting only when the haze spreads overseas and becomes an international issue.

Head of the Riau Office of Environmental Impact Agency Chaerul Zainal says: 'Our area is too large to control. When Singapore complains about the haze, I don't think they realise the complexity of the situation.'

Environmental groups in Riau have urged the government to stop converting forest and peatland, force plantations to use environmentally-sound methods, and strengthen law enforcement for violators.

A WWF officer in Riau, Suhandri, says: 'Sometimes it's baffling - the level of ignorance or indifference of the officials or the locals when you try to get them to understand the concept of sustainability.

'After all, they are the ones who are living with the consequences of their actions.'

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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