Berau, East Kalimantan. Forestry officials and police in Berau district are investigating the burning down of 200 hectares of land inside a protected forest by illegal oil palm plantation operators.
Heri Suparno, head of forest protection at the district forestry office, said on Friday that large swaths of land inside the Tanjung Batu protected forest were razed to the ground, along with smaller patches in the neighboring Kampung Kasai community forest.
He said police had arrested five people and named them suspects in connection with the burnings and were still looking for several others believed to have gone into hiding in the forest.
“The people who burned down the forest were actually local villagers,” Heri said.
“There are indications that they were paid to do so by palm oil companies. These companies are operating illegally, they don’t have permits. We’re going to investigate them as well.”
He declined to identify the companies.
Heri added that officials had also discovered evidence of illegal logging inside Tanjung Batu, including piles of logs stacked on a riverbank, apparently ready to be transported downstream.
“There were hundreds of logs just waiting to be shipped. These were all high-value logs: meranti, marsolo and bengkirai,” he said, referring to native hardwood species.
Heri acknowledged that illegal logging was still a common practice in Berau’s protected and community forests. The former are off-limits to all logging, farming and mining activities, while the latter are restricted only to subsistence farming.
Adj. Sr. Comr. Hendro Prasetyo, the Berau Police chief, confirmed the extent of the problem and said local authorities did not have the manpower to properly patrol the district’s forests. He added that in the meantime, police would continue their questioning of the five suspects and would also process the forestry office’s report against the illegal palm oil companies.
Forest fires in Sumatra, meanwhile, are being blamed for the worst air pollution levels recorded this year in Singapore.
The city-state’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) ranged from 65-75 on Friday morning after a night of thick, choking haze over the island, before clearing up later in the day. A PSI reading of 65-75 is still in the moderate range. Anything above 100 is considered unhealthy.
“For the past week, an increase in hotspot activities was observed over Sumatra,” the National Environment Agency said in its latest update. “The current prevailing winds blowing from the southwest or south have transported the haze from fires in southern Sumatra toward Singapore.”
Additional reporting from AFP