Fires burning inside palm oil concessions linked to major household brands

| 4th September 2018
FFP Deployment in PT SUM, West Kalimantan

Forest Fire Prevention Deployment in PT SUM, West Kalimantan

Forest fires in Indonesian palm oil concessions are destroying the local environment, polluting the air and endangering lives. The concessions belong to major household brands, such as Nestlé and Unilever. MARIANNE BROOKER reports

People in Indonesia are sick and tired. The Indonesian Government promised to stop rogue companies but the palm oil industry still isn’t listening.

Fires have broken out on peatland inside palm oil concessions in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The concessions belong to suppliers of some of the biggest household brands in the world including Mondelez, Nestlé and Unilever, new documentation from Greenpeace Indonesia shows. 

There has been a huge increase in the number of fire hotspots across Indonesia in 2018. As many as 9,819 fire hotspots have been identified this year so far, nearly three times the number identified in all of 2017 (3,488).

Major industries

The number of fire hotspots has been growing steadily throughout August, with Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) warning that the increasingly dry weather could see fires continue to increase through September.

One of the concessions, PT Sumatera Unggul Makmur (PT SUM), has burned every year since 2013. It belongs to Gama, a palm oil company closely connected to the world’s largest palm oil trader, Wilmar. 

Fire hotspots have also been recorded in concessions belonging to Bumitama and First Resources. All three producers have been supplying palm oil to major brands, including Mondelez, Nestlé and Unilever, via Wilmar and other palm oil traders and all three are members of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry’s sustainability certification body.

As palm oil producers clear trees and drain marshes for new plantations, the dried out peat becomes dangerously susceptible to catching fire. 

People in Indonesia are sick and tired. The Indonesian Government promised to stop rogue companies but the palm oil industry still isn’t listening.

Specialist prevention

Annisa Rahmawati, forest campaigner fo Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said: “People in Indonesia are sick and tired. The Indonesian Government promised to stop rogue companies but the palm oil industry still isn’t listening.

"It’s early days yet and we hope the fires don’t get worse, but the haze is already shutting down schools and putting people’s lives at risk.” 

Greenpeace Indonesia has its own Forest Fire Prevention team, which was established in 2016 and is made up of specially trained volunteers and former victims of forest fires and haze.

Prevention is the team’s central focus. They are trained to detect fires and put them out before they become more dangerous and widespread. They also investigate where there is potential for fires to break out, work to raise awareness of the importance of forest and peatland protection for local communities and extinguish fires whenever possible.

They working alongside a special firefighting team from the Ministry of Forestry and Environment, local communities and local NGOs and are supported by Greenpeace Russia’s forest fire experts.

Governmental negligence 

Arif Setiawan from Rasau Jaya in West Kalimantan has been impacted by the fires every year since 2008, which is why he joined the Greenpeace Forest Fire Prevention team. He said: 

“Out on patrol, the peatlands are dry. When the wind blew we watched the fire engulf land and vegetation. We can smell the smoke as it spreads to Pontianak, it’s been thick in recent weeks, and my hometown is close to the hotspots so it’s even worse there.

"When it’s this bad children stay at home. The sad thing is people are getting used to living life wearing masks.”

Last Saturday, Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo, was found guilty of negligence by a Palangkaraya High Court for the Indonesian Government’s handling of the deadly 2015 fires. The Government is appealing the decision at the Supreme Court. 

Arie Rompas, one of the principal plaintiffs and forest campaign team leader of Greenpeace Indonesia, said: “Instead of appealing this verdict, the government needs to accept it messed up and fix the problem by bringing the palm oil industry to heel.

"President Jokowi must take charge of the situation and enforce the law against companies that don’t protect their land from fire.”

This Author

Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This story is based on a press release from Greenpeace.

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