‘We’re not guilty’


Forest fires in Indonesia have been identified as being the major cause of the haze blanketing the region. A debate has been going on about the identity of the culprits. Is it the big firms, the small farmers, the illegal loggers or the El Nino? The Sunday Times hears two prominent but opposing voices on the matter.

Timber magnate says he is being made a scapegoat.

DON’T blame us.

Indonesia’s best-known timber magnate Muhammad “Bob” Hasan had this to say in defence of some of his companies accused of starting forest and ground fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan and causing thick smoke and haze to blanket the region.

“We need the raw materials. So why should we burn them? We are not that stupid,” he told The Sunday Times.

Mr Hasan, who is chairman of the Indonesian Forestry Association, said that some of the forest areas under his management fell prey to plantation firms that engaged in land-clearing by burning in adjoining areas without following proper procedures.

“They open up land by burning and we get affected by the fires. That is why our name got on the government list. We never started the fires in the first place,” he lamented.

The Indonesian government has drawn up a list of 176 plantation and forestry companies it suspects of clearing land by fire and has threatened to revoke their licences if they cannot prove their innocence. It has so far revoked the permits of 29 firms.

Mr Hasan, a close ally and regular golfing partner of President Suharto, said that he took the initiative to report the actions of some of these companies to the government as he was concerned that they were “not professional enough” in their methods of operation.

He directed a broadside at Malaysian and Singapore firms in joint ventures with Indonesian businesses as the culprits behind the widespread fires.

“They are not as professional as we are,” he said, adding that his companies had managed the forest areas in Indonesia much better than American firms had done in the Philippines.

He said his firms took aerial photographs of up to 85 million ha of land to study its mosaic and vegetation before engaging in land-clearing.

They also used more “sophisticated” equipment such as smaller tractors so as not to damage the soil area.

While his companies did not practise land-clearing by fire, he said the method was acceptable if correct procedures were followed. These included having a 30-m “corridor space” between the plot being burnt and any adjoining area.

He said his firms were doing the country a service by clearing land of shrubbery. If not, these would light up like tinder during the hot and dry season.

He said: “There are 30 million ha of land out there for conversion. These are of no economic value and pose a fire hazard.”

The government’s aim, he added, had always been to convert such land for use by plantations and into transmigration areas. Indonesian firms had so far cleared 6 million ha.

Mr Hasan said that besides some unscrupulous firms and small farmers who practised traditional slash-and-burn methods of land-clearing, those who engaged in illegal logging were also responsible for the fires.

He noted that illegal logging was widespread and difficult to control given the extensive Indonesian borders.

“Some people steal and they wipe out the evidence by burning,” he said. Brushing aside any notion that his companies took part in illegal logging, he said: “Do you think I steal? My investments are worth US$2 billion. I am not that stupid as to steal.” His investments work out to S$3.08 billion.

He said that people were out to make him a scapegoat for the fires and haze.

“They blame me for everything that goes wrong in the country because I am close to the leadership,” he said.

“But I am very happy because it makes me more well-known.”

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