Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia Scapegoats for Forest Fires

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In June, 2013,  burning Sumatran forests produced a haze that darkened Southeast Asian skies for hundreds of miles. The haze billowed and drifted from its origin point in Riau Province, Indonesia, and made air unbreathable in cities and towns of several countries, including Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand. The province itself was severely affected as fires raged in the Riau peatlands, smoldering from a depth of four meters below surface level in some areas. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, much of the damaged area was natural forest cover. Palm and acacia plantations in the region often employ burning techniques to clear land of old growth, but the fires frequently get out of control. This is believed to have been the case this year in Riau.

The fire was suspected to have been started June 9th on land intended for palm oil production in the Bengkalis Regency. Though the origins of the fire are unknown, allegations of illegal slash-and-burn clearing have surfaced against both local farmers and multinational corporations operating in the province.

The affected areas are home to Indonesia’s Indigenous Melayu peoples, descendants of the great Melayu kingdoms that once covered large areas of Kalimantan (Borneo), Sumatra, and the entire Malay peninsula.  Contract laborers from other regions in Indonesia (including other Melayu ethnic sub-groups from North Sumatra and eastern Kalimantan) also maintain residence in affected areas as workers for the industries involved in resource extraction.

These local residents were and continue to be disproportionately affected by the fires, yet most national and international media coverage has focused on the effects of the haze in the wealthy city-state of Singapore, located less than 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Riau across the Strait of Malacca. A major concern for local residents and activist organizations has been smoke inhalation; some families are too impoverished to purchase face masks. Homes and villages have also burned. Transporting water to the fire sites to fight the flames has also been a challenge in the most rural areas of Riau, though local firefighters have been praised for their efforts.

In late June, Indonesian police began arresting local farmers they believed to be responsible for the blazes. At least eight local farmers were arrested by June 25, and ten more were in custody as of June 28. A police spokesman stated that the farmers were not connected to any of the dozens of concession holders (inter- or multinational corporations) working in the region. On June 30, the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) and the Indonesian Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria (the Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement, AGRA) released a statement claiming that the farmers were “sacrificial lambs” arrested by the provincial police in order to protect the palm oil companies. According to the official APC-AGRA statement, the immediate and unconditional release of the eighteen farmers as well as “genuine agrarian reform” for the nation are necessary next steps. The organizations represent Indigenous peoples and agricultural workers in various Asian countries and support agrarian reforms which grant land ownership to the tillers, among other initiatives.

According to the Bengkalis Regency disaster management agency, annual fires cause industries to abandon their devastated crops on a regular basis. New, naive companies then come into Riau and purchase the plantation lands at a greatly reduced price, unaware of the potential for ravaging fires basically guaranteed in the following dry season. Logic would suggest that economically disadvantaged local farmers, Indigenous and migrant, might be desperate enough for cash to set clearing fires at the request of a corporation offering a comparatively large sum to do the job; an average salary for Sumatran farmers ranges between US$10-20 monthly. The farmers would bear the burden of blame if the fires did not burn as planned, regardless of who hired them and was, therefore, the responsible party. The APC and AGRA have explained that clearing by burning costs approximately US$200-300 per hectare (ha), whereas other methods not requiring burning can be as expensive as US$1,500/ha. So far, 16,500 ha have burned in Riau this year.

Indigenous peoples around the world have relied on slash-and-burn farming techniques for subsistence farming for thousands of years. When done with careful rotation and sufficient time for land recovery, the practice is relatively sustainable. However, Indigenous populations without land titles to ensure access and facilitate rotation plans often use slash-and-burn techniques on new lands more frequently. This is particularly true if they are trying to survive intrusion from outside forces, such as colonization or the modern condition of extractive industry intrusion. In the case of Indonesia, the federal transmigration program has also put pressure on Indigenous farmers in Sumatra. Over-crowding in other regions within the country prompted tens of thousands of migrants to move to remote areas of the country in order to create infrastructure and make use of fertile land.

Fifty years of intense transmigration has contributed to Sumatran deforestation and put the livelihoods of Indigenous inhabitants, including the ethnic Melayu and Sumatran forest dwellers, at risk. The large swaths of land previously occupied by Indigenous populations have been parceled off and titled to migrants. The federal transmigration program and concessions to corporations have left few options for traditional farmers. In Riau, if allegations against a corporation are ultimately unverifiable, a small-scale farmer could be implicated as reponsible for the destruction and the haze. However, the systemic issues at play in the region demonstrate that the guilt could not possibly rest with an individual farmer or a small group of individuals.

Regardless of whether a local farmer, corporate-sponsored slash-and-burn negligence, or a single careless smoker started the fires, the Indonesian government has leveled allegations against at least one of the many large firms operating in Riau. The suspect is PT ADEI Plantation and Industry, a subsidiary of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhard (KLK), and the charge is illegal burning practices within their 14,000+ha concession area. The firm will be brought to suit on charges of environmental damage. According to the Jakarta Post, other companies in the area were implicated in the fires, but proof of illegal activities has only been found in PT ADEI concession areas. The charges were announced officially on July 11, sixteen days after KLK released a statement affirming their compliance with the ASEAN zero burning policies.

Indonesian environmentalists have put blame on the government for failing to respond quickly enough and for not building the capacity of local law enforcement to stop farmers from taking part in slash-and-burn activities, both on the small scale and in the cases they are hired by large corporations to burn within concessions. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has issued apologies to Singapore and Malaysia for the haze and lawmakers have visited Riau to explore fire prevention strategies with local officials.

Neither the Indonesian government nor any representative of PT ADEI/KLK have issued any apology to the local populations affected by the fires or the haze. No word has yet surfaced about the fate of the 18 farmers arrested last month. If Indigenous Melayu farmers had been practicing the slash-and-burn techniques commonly seen in small-scale farming around the globe, they could indeed be unjustly sacrificed to protect the interests of corporations also implicated in or responsible for the disaster. Multiple questions are raised through an examination of this case: How can small-scale Indigenous farmers in modern Sumatra be supported in transitioning to more sustainable farming practices? How can the negative impacts of the federal transmigration program be reduced? How can extractive corporations operating in Indonesia be held responsible for their transgressions against the land and regional Indigenous populations? We hope that the lawsuit against PT ADEI / KLK facilitates greater action towards protecting tropical forests and Indigenous peoples in Riau and across the whole of the Indonesian archipelago.

(Photo: “Indonesian fires cause record smog”, courtesy of Ulet Ifansasti/Getty and Financial Times.)