Clearing the Haze: Who owns the land being burnt?

“Clearing the Haze” is a feature series by The Online Citizen that brings you into the core of the trans-boundary haze issue. Our reporting team joined volunteers from local haze monitoring group, PM. Haze, on one of their field trips into the heart of Indonesia earlier this year to find out more about the haze situation, what causes the fires, and what can be done about it.

By Terry Xu and Yasmeen Banu

In 1997, Indonesia witnessed its worst episode of haze, with peatland fires engulfing the nation, resulting in heavy economic losses, severe health implications as well as changes in climate temperature.

A combination two issues – difficulty in fighting underground peatland fires, and the lack of access to plantations to check for compliance with government regulations – basically meant that government and non-government organisations (NGOs) always had problems with finding the owners of the land being set on fire.

Ever since the haze issue was brought to the attention of neighbouring countries in 1997, environment NGOs and neighbouring countries affected have been trying to figure a way to improve situation, if not to eradicate the problem. One of the things NGO members and Ministers alike have been trying to do is to identify the land owners of the plantations set on fire.

The locals and migrants

The peatlands beneath Riau have undergone dramatic changes over the years in order to accommodate to agricultural farming. One of Indonesia’a biggest economic contributor is its palm oil business, as Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil. After decades of building the economy, it does not seem to serve any purpose to abruptly stop production of the country’s greatest source of income and allow land owners to take their palm oil businesses elsewhere.

For local villagers who are allocated land through customary rights, farming is their way of providing for their families, be it to provide food through subsistence farming, or for cash profits. For the farmers who do not practice controlled burning and who practice shifting cultivation, burning the land is the most viable way to clear the land.

new house
New house which was built shortly after a recent fire in February 2014.

Apart from locals, there are also migrants burning vegetation and claiming it for themselves. A migrant family would just built a house on a plot of land soon after a fire was set to clear the vegetation on the land. Although some occupy the land to work for plantation owners, many would burn the land and lay claim to it, or simply move in after a fire. Some of these lands might even belong to companies.

Of the land concession given out to companies, 70 percent is for plantations,  10 percent for village settlements, five percent for infrastructure, and 15 percent for conservation.

Land concession to companies

In Indonesia, land concessions are given out by two ministries, the Ministry of Trade and Industries and the Ministry of Forestry as both have the authority to issue out concessions.

On paper, companies are only supposed to own 50,000 hectares of land. But in reality, big multi-national companies (MNCs) like Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd (APRIL) own much more than that. According to Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (WALHI), APP and APRIL collectively own 2.1 million hectares of land out of the 4.2 million hectares of peatland. These companies are able to own such a large piece of land through their subsidiaries, contractors and sub-contractors.

Exploiters of the forest often get away with burning land as traceability is a major problem in Indonesia. The authorities are not able to accurately allocate land tenures, as they are seldom aware of what is happening on the ground. This includes disputes over land ownership and responsibility, which only perpetuates the cycle of confusion.

Riko Kurniawan of WALHI said that WALHI has compiled the permits that has been given out by the two Ministries and found that the total land given to companies far exceed the total land mass of Riau itself. Volunteers at the organisation added that when land is given out, the Ministries do not do checks on the land itself, such as the land type or whether there are any inhabitants. This, the volunteers said, leads to eventual land conflicts.

For example, there can be a settlement within a land concession granted to a company. However, because of the inaccuracy of the settlement granted, the dwellers within the allocated settlement are left to sort out with the companies over their ownership of the land. Land elsewhere can be reassigned to the companies if there is any contest but the land allocation process itself might be haphazard as it is likely that no checks would be conducted prior to the allocation.

Whose land is burning?

hot spots 2013
Hot spots recorded by the NASA satellite at Riau in 2013.

Getting evidence of the location of forest fires is an easy task through modern technology and satellite feeds. But being able to identify which plot of land is burning is hardly useful, when responsibility can hardly be ascertained due to overlapping land concessions awarded to companies.

Earlier last month, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) called for the government “to immediately finalize ‘One Map’ and spatial planning process” so as to accelerate the initiative that would eventually provide a single reference of maps in Indonesia, “thus forestry license given by the government will no longer overlap between one another”.

Badan Lingkungan Hidup (BLH), a government body that is in charge of managing environmental issues at a provincial level, impose regulations that require each plot of land of about five hectares to be managed by five members of Masyarakat Peduli Api (or Organised Fire Care Community Groups), and to have a watch tower and wells to facilitate fire fighting efforts.

Authority figures also seem defensive and uncomfortable with questions and probes about the plantations. While walking through plantations with a chief MPA member explaining to volunteers from PM. Haze about dams and their systems, we were reprimanded by police officers who asked for our passports and questioned the purpose of us going around the plantations with the NGOs.

Indonesian police and chinese boss
Indonesia Police asking why the volunteers are there at the plantation.

Currently, there have been efforts by government officials to resolve their issue of licenses and permits. However, many locals still see these as weak efforts to protect the land. There is also reluctance by officials to share information with NGOs, which increases the level of complications. The issue of corruption also cannot be written off, as a land owner we interviewed alleged that he had to pay the police to do their job of policing the land he owns.

NGOs like WALHI have plotted their own maps and narrowed down the companies who are doing the burning. However, it is hard for them to obtain data about the companies to link them up with big MNC’s as the companies are based overseas, in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.

Kurniawan says this is where Singapore can come in, to supply information about the companies which they suspect are responsible for forest fires.

TOC’s “Clearing the Haze” series includes:

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