Jakarta. As disaster mitigation and law enforcement officials continue to battle the ongoing forest fires in Sumatra’s Riau province, other areas across the country are also struggling to contain blazes amid the dry weather.
In Aceh, fires have been reported in the Tripa peat forest, a key habitat for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, Sumatran orangutan and other wildlife.
Haze from the fires, linked to slash-and-burn forest clearing, has begun to envelop surrounding residential areas, an environmental activist said.
Fadila Ibra, a spokesman for the Rawa Tripa Rescue Coalition Team, said 69 fire hot spots had been identified within plantation areas in Tripa area between March 1 and 14.
The coalition comprises several organizations advocating for the conservation of the peat forest, spanning 61,800 hectares in the world-renowned and ecologically important Leuser Ecosystem area.
“Forty-one fires were found in a concession area belonging to Golora Sawita Makmur, while Kalista Alam hosts the second highest number of fires with 14 of them,” Fadila told the Jakarta Globe on Monday, referring to oil palm plantation companies.
“Additionally, Surya Panen Subur and Cemerlang Abadi each had two fires. As of today, there have been no efforts by the companies to put out the fires. If they let this go on, then the damage to the ecosystem in the Tripa peat forest will only worsen.
“From our investigation, the fires happened from intentional burning to clear new plantation area,” Fadila added.
He said fires had also been found within a 1,605-hectare area where plantation activities had been banned after the Aceh administration had revoked a permit issued to Kalista Alam.
In North Kalimantan, meanwhile, fires have been reported in at least two districts, Bulungan and Tarakan. In Bulungan alone, 15 forest fires have been recorded since the start of March, with the hot weather and strong winds contributing to spreading the flames from fires set by farmers to clear land.
Officials in East Kalimantan have also reported two cases of forest fires in East Kalimantan.
“The fires are spreading and the number of officials [working to put out the fires] are limited,” M. Amin, a local fire department official, told the Globe on Sunday.
“We have deployed five fire trucks because there are residential areas nearby. We are concerned that the fires could spread to the homes because the wind is quite strong.”
Bambang Hero Saharjo, a professor of forest protection at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) and chairmain of the Southeast Asia Wildfire Network, said in a discussion on Monday that forest areas had declined by 40 percent between 2008 and 2013, an issue which he said could be attributed to government officials who had a habit of selling out licenses to companies.
He also said slash-and-burn forest clearing was seen as a cheap and effective way for farmers and plantation companies to clear land.
“As a comparison, to clear one hectare of land without burning would cost take approximately Rp 50 million [$4,450] and would take between two and four weeks. Meanwhile, by setting fire to the forest, the estimated cost would be between Rp 1 million and Rp 2 million,” Bambang said.
He called on the government to tightening regulations for issuing land clearing licenses and to mete out harsher sanctions for individuals or companies found setting forest fires deliberately.
Bambang also underlined the importance of sanctioning regional offices who have failed to monitor crimes related to forest fires.
“Government officials who are negligent in keeping a close watch on cases of forest fires should be sanctioned, because these monitoring efforts are very important,” Bambang said.