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Friday, 21 July, 2000, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Indonesia's fires 'Suharto's legacy'
Fire AP
Indonesia needs to review its policies, the report says
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The forest fires now ravaging parts of Indonesia will break out again and again unless government policy changes fundamentally, conservationists say.

A report by the World Resources Institute says the fires are symptomatic of "a far greater disaster - the systematic plunder and destruction of south-east Asia's greatest rainforests over the past three decades."

The report says the fires of 1997 and 1998 burnt 10 million hectares of forest and caused economic damage estimated at US $10bn. It describes them as "the direct and inevitable outcome of forest and land-use policies and practices unleashed by the Suharto regime."

The report by WRI, which is based in Washington DC, is entitled Trial by Fire: Forest fires and forestry policy in Indonesia's era of crisis and reform. It is co-published by WWF and Telapak Indonesia Foundation, a non-governmental environmental group.

'Crony capitalism'

One of the authors, Dr Charles Barber, said: "Current Indonesian forest policies have provided powerful legal incentives for 'cut-and-run' resource extraction.

"They have failed to create effective mechanisms for enforcing even minimum standards of forest resource stewardship."

The report says former premier Suharto's malpractices were perpetuated "by a corrupt culture of 'crony capitalism' that elevated personal profit over public interest, the environment, or the rule of law." During the 32 years of President Suharto's rule, WRI says, Indonesia lost at least 40 million hectares of forest, an area the size of Germany and the Netherlands together.

"Much of these forests were granted as timber concessions to Suharto's cronies, his family, and to ill-fated government projects like the failed effort to convert 1m ha of peat swamp forests in central Kalimantan into rice fields. "In the 1990s, oil palm and timber plantations replaced additional millions of hectares of forests. Illegal logging has become prevalent, accounting for an estimated half of the annual production of timber."

The report says many of the 1997 and 1998 fires were started deliberately by plantation owners who took advantage of the dry season to clear the forests and plant export crops instead. Dr Barber described the fires as "just the latest symptom of a destructive system of forest resource management carried out by the former regime over 30 years."

Concessions freeze

Preventing future fires, he said, would depend on a major restructuring of relationships between the state, the private sector and the millions of people who lived in the forests and depended on them.

Dr Barber told BBC News Online: "The long-term solution lies in a thorough reform of the whole forest and plantation sector, a freeze on allocation of or extension of any logging concessions or plantation licenses, and the whole agenda for community-level sustainable management of forest lands and resources.

"I wish I could be more optimistic, but the situation is very bad, and appears to be getting worse."

The report's recommendations include stronger laws and penalties against clearing plantations by burning. It wants indigenous people to be given legal protection to their ownership and use of forests, and help in managing them sustainably.

The WRI president, Jonathan Lash, said: "The key question is whether government forest policy will lead and smooth the way for these changes, or will be dragged along by popular action - which is likely to turn increasingly violent - at the grassroots."

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See also:

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Flashback to Haze '98
09 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Anti-pollution steps in Sumatra
04 Jul 98 | Haze 98
Haze: Who starts the fires?
13 Apr 98 | Asia-Pacific
Brunei chokes in thick smoke haze
06 Apr 98 | Analysis
Haze - what can be done?
01 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
Return of the Asian haze
06 Apr 98 | Haze 98
Haze: Bad for the health
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