Sunday, October 19, 1997

Asian companies threatened with court action over fires

October 19, 1997

Andreas Harsono

JAKARTA-- Journalist Fikri Jufri of the Jakarta-based Matra magazine has some good advice for any Indonesian who wants to travel to either Singapore or Malaysia. Don't say that you're an Indonesian! They hate Indonesians nowadays," laughed the editor in a recent conversation.

Jufri has his reasons for giving such advice. Over 1,000 forest fires on the Indonesian major islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan have created a thick haze over Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and even some southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines since July.

Environmentalists say it is one of the most widespread human-made disasters that the region has ever known. More than 30 million Indonesians are affected, especially those living on the two islands where the fires had burned more than 600,000 hectares of bushes and forests (an area slightly larger than Saskatchewan).

Flights have been canceled and schools closed around the region. The busy shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca have been disrupted by low visibility. Millions of people are coughing and wheezing.

Tonnes of cargo are stored in warehouses. Some international courier services, which intended to charter private planes to deliver packages, can do nothing but wait as pilots and air traffic controllers refuse to allow flights to take off.

“They hate Indonesians. They blame the government here for the fires," said Jufri who travels regularly to Singapore to visit his teenage daughter.

For the most part, the fires are intentionally set. Hundreds of Indonesian and Malaysian companies—mostly large agricultural concerns, and some with high-placed government or military connections--are using fire as a cheap and illegal means of land-clearing. They used the slash-and-burn method in the expectation that the monsoon rains would begin not later than August.

They miscalculated and the fires spread faster than what Indonesian fire fighters could combat. Malaysia sent more than 1,200 fire fighters and airplanes equipped with rain-bombs to help douse the blaze, but their efforts made only minimal difference.

For much of August and September, the Pollution Standard Index--a standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency that measures carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, dust, ash, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide-rose between 200 and 800 in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Normally the Index stays below 100. In Sarawak, the worst hit area, the index climbed to a high of 830 for some days in September--far above the "hazardous" level of 500 at which people are advised to stay inside with doors and windows closed.

In mid-September, Indonesian President Suharto publicly apologized to Indonesia's neighbours in a speech he delivered in front of environmental ministers from Southeast Asia who had gathered in Jakarta to discuss the fires. “We are fully aware that these bush and forest fires have disrupted communications and created an impact on all of us," said Suharto.

Newspapers in the region reported that the apology came after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrote to Suharto expressing deep concern over the smoke haze. The letter was presented personally to Suharto by Malaysian Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Deng who was attending the meeting in Jakarta.

Critics say the Indonesian government did too little too late to overcome the problem. Environmentalist Emmy Hafild says the regional meeting failed to deliver plans to snuff out forest fires and stop the spread of smoke. The outspoken environmentalist calls for concerted action to prosecute people and corporations responsible for setting forest fires that blaze uncontrollably across Indonesia.

“We are planning a court action ourselves because we think these fires can be treated as arson. We're consulting our lawyers and gathering evidence for it now," she says, adding that about 80 per cent of the fires are thought to have been set by 176 plantation and forestry companies on the government environmental blacklist. Some of them are owned by Indonesian's wealthiest individuals, including its two top business tycoons, Liem Sioe Liong and Eka Tjipta Wijaya. Wijaya's PT Indah Kiat is in Riau, next door to Singapore across the Malacca Strait.

Some companies in the Salim Group, which is controlled by. Liem Sioe Liong, are also on the blacklist. Liem is a longtime associate of Indonesian President Suharto. They have been friends since the 1950s when the young lieutenant colonel Suharto was a military commander in Central Java and Liem had just started his business in the province.

Other major players with blacklist ties are timber baron Bob Hasan, whose PT Kiani Lestari operates in Kalimantan, and Prayogo Pangestu of the widely diversified Barito Pacific Group. (Pangestu's PT Musi Hutan Persada is in southern Sumatra.)

Hasan plays golf two or three times a week with the Indonesian president, who has been in power since 1965, prompting claims that Hasan meets Suharto more often than government ministers. Hasan is also a close business adviser to the president and runs the day-today affairs of the Nusamba Group, owned by private foundations controlled by Suharto.

Prayogo is a younger tycoon who has close ties to the eldest daughter of Suharto, Siti Hardlyanti Rukmana. Prayogo and Rukmana have shared interests in some businesses. Ironically, the blacklist also includes the names of some state-owned plantation companies operating in Kalimantan such as PTP XVIII, PTP Pelaihari, PTP Pamukan, and FTP Muara Badak. Companies owned by an army foundation also appear on the list.

According to Fikri Jufri, the Malaysians and the Singaporeans hate Indonesian people because the people here do not fight enough to oppose a government with such bad practices. “My advice is just don't say that you're an Indonesian. It's a shame to be an Indonesian," the journalist laughed again.

Copyright 1997 Micromedia Limited
Canadian Business and Current Affairs
Copyright 1997 New Catholic Times Inc.
Catholic New Times

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