Drone footage shows illegal burning for palm oil in Riau


Flames in the area were visible through clouds and haze in this Landsat 8 image of 20 August Photo: http://glovis.usgs.gov/

A coalition of organisations in Indonesia has released drone footage showing evidence of the criminal use of fire to clear forests, within an allegedly illegal oil palm concession.

Eyes on the Forest (EoF), which operates in Riau on the island of Sumatra, flew drones over the concession this month after new outbreaks of land fires. Riau has been heavily impacted by illegal fires, which generate huge volumes of greenhouse gasses and case a toxic haze over large parts of Southeast Asia in the dry season.

The footage captured by EoF shows what it describes as “the vastness of the destruction” in peatlands that are claimed by the palm oil company PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL).

It shows canals that have carved through the peat to drain it, a necessary step for planting palm oil, but which generates emissions by causing the carbon-rich soil to decompose. Burnt soil and vegetation, including oil palms, can be seen in the footage.

The smoke from land and forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo in 2015 became a global environmental and health crisis. It generated more emissions than the entire German economy and may have contributed to more than 100,000 premature deaths. The use of fire to clear land and forests for palm oil is illegal, but evidence shows that many companies did and continue to employ the practice as a cheap way to prepare land.

NASA data analysed by EoF, a coalition composed of WWF, JIKALAHARI and WALHI, suggests almost 2,000 land fires occurred in Riau in August this year, when the crisis effectively resumed again after respite brought by the rainy season. Satellite images obtained by EoF show smoke plumes from areas clearly associated with industrial-scale plantations.

The day after EoF monitored the APSL concession by drone, seven officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry investigating the company over the use of fire in peatlands were taken hostage and held for several hours by a mob. The Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, has alleged that the mob was hired by APSL to stymie the investigation.

Ms. Siti has stated that the concession is illegal, and that some 2,000 hectares was burnt by APSL workers pretending to be farmers. EoF’s analysis suggests that some 10,000ha of land has been burnt, including deep peat areas that cannot be legally cultivated.

APSL has been embroiled in legal issues and disputes with local communities since at least 2014. For more information on the case click here.

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