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  Jakarta Post 28 May 07
Industrialist urges government to clear up haze problem

Riau province is a substantial contributor to the country's annual haze problem, which causes health, transportation and environmental problems both at home and in the neighboring countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Rudi Fajar, president of Riau-based pulp and paper mill PT Riaupulp, this year's winner of the Social Empowerment Award, talked with The Jakarta Post's Ridwan Max Sijabat about the current environmental situation in the province at a recent seminar on corporate social responsibility in Jakarta.

Question: What are your comments on the annual haze problem in Indonesia?

Answer: Riau is the province which contributes the most to the annual haze problem in the country and farmers, plantation managers and forest concession holders should take responsibility for it.

The haze comes from forest and bush areas and in most cases people deliberately light the fires during periods of drought in an attempt to convert land into palm oil plantations.

Law enforcers, particularly the police and the local administration in Riau, should take more notice of preventing haze this year during the upcoming dry season between July and September. Besides preparing fire extinguishing squads, law enforcers should also take harsh action against people involved in the lighting of these fires.

As a big corporation in the province, we are concerned about the negative impact of the haze on public health and the disturbances it causes to air transportation. We feel embarrassed when neighboring countries frequently relay their protests about the haze to the Indonesian government.

What do you think of measures taken by the government to prevent the haze from spreading to other countries?

The government has to be more serious in its efforts to take emergency action to extinguish forest and bush fires. People and corporations found to have lit forest fires must be brought to justice.

The government should ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze and enforce the country's 1997 environmental law to show its commitment to the regional grouping's goals and the UN resolution on global warming and climate change.

How can the haze problem be prevented?

It cannot be completely stopped because like other provinces, Riau has hundreds of hot spots where fires can be triggered as easily as a discarded cigarette setting a bush on fire, particularly during the dry season and times of drought.

However, haze can be significantly minimized through joint efforts by all stakeholders, who must take action in accordance with their capacities.

While intensifying the no-burn campaign among the public and businesses, fire extinguishing squads and the police should visit forest and farm areas prone to fires.

Meanwhile, relevant authorities should supervise places such as national parks and protected forests in the province more heavily. If all provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan were to take similar steps, the haze problem could be minimized this year.

Does your company contribute to haze prevention in the province?

Riaupulp is a member of the haze prevention group which adopted the no-burn policy in industrial forests. We have a 350-member fire squad equipped with a helicopter, a high-pressure extinguisher pump, an air tractor and tankers which are ready around the clock to be deployed. The fire squad is often deployed to extinguish annual bush and forest fires in the province.

Riaupulp holds a concession to manage 330,000 hectares of industrial forest, which supplies raw materials to our pulp and paper mills. Twenty-three percent of this area has not been cultivated for conservation purposes and 26 percent is set aside for local residents to earn a living.

But Riaupulp has been accused of looting the Tesso Nilo protected forest. What are your comments on this?

That allegation is not true and we are prepared for an independent investigation to be conducted.

We even carried out a joint project with other companies and with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to enlarge the protected forest to 100,000 hectares from its previous 38,500 hectares in an effort to avoid further environmental degradation and to protect rare species such as elephants and Sumatran tigers.

Through this project, the WWF is able help protect these rare animals and the immediate environment while companies cultivate the industrial forests which surround the protected forest.

It is not a trade-off, but rather a bilateral agreement benefiting both sides. Riaupulp has also conducted a wood tracking assessment which is audited by the Malaysian SGS and supervised by the WWF.

Are local residents permitted to collect firewood from the protected forest?

Of course villagers have access to raw materials for traditional medicine and are able to collect firewood. But we have enhanced cooperation with the local natural resources conservation agency to protect the forest from looters and illegal loggers.

We also teach local residents how to grow vegetables and other resources and how to build social infrastructure such as school buildings, health centers and places of worship.

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