Indonesian companies say : ‘Neither are we’


Firms claim they don’t clear land by burning.

WE ARE not at fault.

Forestry and plantation firms in Indonesia contacted by The Straits Times yesterday had this to say when asked what they were doing to help put out the land and forest fires they allegedly started.

Mr Shyr Chaur Hann, vice-president of PT Indah Kiat in Riau, said that his pulp company was not responsible for any of the fires.

“I am so surprised that the government would even consider us to be involved in such activity because we don’t encourage land-clearing by fire,” he said.

PT Indah Kiat is a joint venture between Taiwan’s Chung Hwa Pulp and Paper company and Indonesia’s Sinar Mas Group. It employs more than 25,000 people in its forestry and pulp operations.

It is one of 175 firms suspected of violating a ban on clearing land by burning. The Indonesian government has said that it will revoke the licences of these firms if they are found guilty and has given them until the end of this month to prove their innocence.

Sinar Mas’ president-director Indra Wijaya, who has extensive operations in fire-ravaged Sumatra and Kalimantan, said that while the government had identified various “hot spots” through satellite pictures, it was incorrect to pinpoint blame on some firms just because they were in the same locale.

“The fire could have originated from a different source. So we have to prove to the government that we are not at fault,” he said.

He added: “Why should a pulp factory burn and destroy wood it needs for its own purposes. It seems counter-productive and flawed from a business point of view.”

How then could the fires have started? Mr Indra believes that farmers who practise the traditional methods of clearing land by slash-and-burn methods are mainly responsible for the fires and choking pollution enveloping Indonesia and parts of South-east Asia.

His views are echoed by other big business firms.

Timber baron Muhammad “Bob” Hasan, defending the major companies, said the fires were the fault of “people’s plantations, shifting-cultivation farmer and wood thieves”.

He said small farmers and plantation operators could not afford to use heavy machinery to clear land and were relying on cheaper land-clearing methods.

Mr Shyr noted that bigger firms, unlike small farmers, were constrained by various regulations. His company, for example, followed a policy which discouraged wood burning or clearing land by fire.

“It is these local farmers that are the culprits,” he said.

He said that PT Indah Kiat, like many other firms affected by the worsening haze, was helping in the fire-fighting efforts by providing funds and loaning heavy equipment.

“We have to put out the fire because our interests are affected as well,” he said.

Mr Indra said that Sinar Mas would be helping out but stopped short of announcing what it would do – like many of the other companies on the government “hit list” which are maintaining a low profile in this problem.

The Straits Times attempted to contact three major conglomerates with plantation and forestry companies in Kalimantan and Sumatra but none, with the exception of the Sinar Mas group, cared to comment on the matter.A Bloomberg report said yesterday that of the 173 companies thought to be involved in setting the fires, only 76 had reported back to the government.

Of the 76 companies, 23 said they had burnt land, 14 were strongly suspected of it, seven said they had not, three said the fires spread from outside, one said it had no fires, and 23 did not provide enough information.

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