Timber tycoon sees land clearing as service to govt
THE BIG HAZE
INDONESIA’S best-known timber magnate argued on Wednesday that forestry and plantation firms were doing the country a service by clearing the land of shrubbery, but conceded that burnings had gotten out of hand in some areas and resulted in massive haze-causing fires.
Timber baron Muhammad “Bob” Hasan, a close ally and regular golfing partner of President Suharto, said that if shrub lands were not cleared by firms, these areas would light up like tinderboxes during the hot and dry season.
“There are 30 million ha of land out there for conversion. These are of no economic value and pose a fire hazard,” he told The Straits Times.
The government’s aim, he added, had always been to convert such land for use by plantations and into transmigration areas.
Firms had so far cleared only about six million ha of such land across the country, he said, adding that if the balance of 24 million ha was not cleared for conversion, “imagine the damage it could do to the environment once natural fires break out”.
Mr Hasan, who is the chairman of the Indonesian Forestry Society, acknowledged that the fires currently raging in Sumatra and Kalimantan were the result of some “unprofessional companies” and small farmers who practised traditional slash-and-burn methods of land clearing.
The problem was being added to and had become more complicated because of the drought-inducing El Nino phenomenon.
“Given that it is the dry season and because of El Nino, we have to be extra careful in clearing land by controlled burning,” he said.
Up to 100,000 ha out of the 143 million ha of forest area in the country had been destroyed so far, he said. Some government officials believed the figure could be as high as 300,000 ha while environmentalists put it closer to 800,000 ha.
Mr Hasan said Dutch and German expertise were now being used to prevent a recurrence of fires breaking out in Indonesia’s largest provinces.
The established procedure for land clearing by fire was to have a “corridor space” of 30m between the plot being burnt and any adjoining area.
“That way, the fire will not spread to other areas,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of the companies might not have followed this rule.”
He declined to name these companies but claimed that Malaysian and Singaporean firms in joint ventures with Indonesian businesses were involved.
Mr Hasan said that none of his firms practised land clearing by fire or was responsible for the worsening haze enveloping the region.
“Some people are making such allegations because they see me as being near the leadership,” he said, adding that none of his companies were on the government’s “hit list” of 176 firms identified as having cleared land by burning.
“We need the raw materials. So why should we burn them? We are not that stupid,” he said.
Environment Ministry officials here said larger firms were responsible for 80 per cent of the fires in the country. The remaining 20 per cent were caused by small-scale farmers.