Peat fires in Riau continue despite conversion moratorium

A moratorium on land conversion begun during former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration in 2011 has not yet been effective to save peat forests in Riau, as slash and burn practices to clear areas for plantations in the province have continued to occur.

In Sumber Jaya village, Siak Kecil district, Bengkalis regency, more than 100 hectares of peat forests included in the moratorium area have been set on fire in the last three months.

Tarpan, 59, a Sumber Jaya villager, said some of the burned peat forests had been cleared a few years ago.

“During the last three months, our village has had rain only three times. Peatlands are really dry and they burn easily,” he told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

Tarpan said a joint team comprising Society Concerned about Fires (MPA) volunteers and fire officers from an industrial forest permit (HTI) holder operating in the area had once managed to extinguish fires in peat forests located around 4.5 kilometers from people’s settlements.

“But within only days, they burned again. It seemed that the fires had continued to spread under the soil surface,” he said.

According to Tarpan, burned peat forests in Sumber Jaya are part of 6,000 hectares of land allocated for 700 households that participated in transmigration programs in 1980. Many families lost their land ownership letters when a huge flood hit the village in 1984, however.

“Working with officials in the Bengkalis regency administration, many village officials took advantage of the situation and illegally confiscated land initially allocated for the transmigrants. They sold the land to plantation businessmen and this was the beginning of a situation where land fires were able to easily occur here,” said Tarpan.

The Bengkalis Police were reported to have apprehended three Sumber Jaya village officials for their alleged involvement in land clearing and burning.

Illegal land buying and selling practices as well as excessive conversion triggering fires in peat forests listed as moratorium areas have also occurred in Tanjung Layang, Tanjung Kuras village, Sungai Apit district, Siak regency.

Concerning the situation, Greenpeace SEA Indonesia’s forest political campaigner, M. Teguh Surya, urged President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to take action to stop deforestation in primary forests and peatlands included in the moratorium area.

He said Presidential Instruction (Inpres) No. 6/2013 on a moratorium on the issuance of new conversion permits on primary forests and peatlands, which would expire on May 13, must be extended and strengthened.

“After its four-year implementation, Jokowi should be able to read what are the weaknesses and loopholes of Inpres No. 6,” said Teguh.

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