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Jakarta Post

Expansion of Central Kalimantan oil palm plantations destroys the environment

  • Setiono Sugiharto

    The Jakarta Post

Sukamara, C. Kalimantan   /   Tue, October 13, 2015   /  04:29 pm
Expansion of Central Kalimantan oil palm plantations destroys the environment No man’s land: Shrubs dominate a plot of land in Sukamara regency, Central Kalimantan. The land has been cleared by burning, widely seen as the easiest and cheapest method of clearing.(Setiono Sugiharto)" height="464" border="0" width="340">No man’s land: Shrubs dominate a plot of land in Sukamara regency, Central Kalimantan. The land has been cleared by burning, widely seen as the easiest and cheapest method of clearing.(Setiono Sugiharto)

Once a pristine, far-flung region in Central Kalimantan fully covered by rain forest, Sukamara regency is now densely inhabited by people hailing from West Java, East Java, South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and West Kalimantan.

With its millions of hectares of oil palm plantations, Sukamara always lures newcomers trying their luck at making a living. However, since major palm oil companies began their operations in the regency, the natives have grappled with various difficulties.

Seven years ago, Harun, 60, a native resident of Sukamara, who cultivates fish in the river bank near his house, didn’t have to bother worrying about drinking water. He simply took the water from the river for his family’s daily consumption. But now he must buy it from vendors.

“I don’t want to risk my life by drinking the water from the river, as it is now heavily polluted by the fertilizers used by workers to boost the growth of palm oil trees,” Harun explained in the local Banjarnese dialect.

“These highly toxic fertilizers are easily absorbed and mix with the ground water during the rainy season, which then flows to the river, contaminating it.”

Harun further said that the contaminated river had caused fish harvest failure. “All of my fish die before I can harvest them,” he said.

The massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Sukamara and its neighboring regions such as Pangkalanbun, Air Rupas, Manis Mata, Pontianak, Ketapang, Kotawaringin Lama and Balai Riam have also created another problem — the protracted haze crisis as a result of the deliberate burning of forests.

Among other places affected by the smog, provincial capital of Palangkaraya was hit by the worst smog ever recorded this year. Apart from regularly disrupting flight schedules to the capital and its regencies, the haze claimed the life of a nine-day baby and left dozens of people suffering from Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (ISPA).

Responding to complaints by aircraft passengers, a staff member of an airline serving the Jakarta — Pangkalanbun route said recently that during the current drought, flight delays were inevitable. He said the visibility was only 200 meters, while 2000 meters were needed for planes to land safely on the runway.

For most people in Central Kalimantan, with the Pollutant Standard Index reaching a lethal level, this year’s haze crisis was totally unbearable, causing them to temporarily halt their outdoor activities and to regularly visit hospitals to receive treatment for haze-related diseases.

Unclaimed water: A river flows through Sukamara regency. Local residents no longer have the luxury of taking their drinking water straight from the river, which has been contaminated by chemical fertilizers used to boost oil palm growth.(Setiono Sugiharto)

No man'€™s land: Shrubs dominate a plot of land in Sukamara regency, Central Kalimantan. The land has been cleared by burning, widely seen as the easiest and cheapest method of clearing.(Setiono Sugiharto)

Once a pristine, far-flung region in Central Kalimantan fully covered by rain forest, Sukamara regency is now densely inhabited by people hailing from West Java, East Java, South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and West Kalimantan.

With its millions of hectares of oil palm plantations, Sukamara always lures newcomers trying their luck at making a living. However, since major palm oil companies began their operations in the regency, the natives have grappled with various difficulties.

Seven years ago, Harun, 60, a native resident of Sukamara, who cultivates fish in the river bank near his house, didn'€™t have to bother worrying about drinking water. He simply took the water from the river for his family'€™s daily consumption. But now he must buy it from vendors.

'€œI don'€™t want to risk my life by drinking the water from the river, as it is now heavily polluted by the fertilizers used by workers to boost the growth of palm oil trees,'€ Harun explained in the local Banjarnese dialect.

'€œThese highly toxic fertilizers are easily absorbed and mix with the ground water during the rainy season, which then flows to the river, contaminating it.'€

Harun further said that the contaminated river had caused fish harvest failure. '€œAll of my fish die before I can harvest them,'€ he said.

The massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Sukamara and its neighboring regions such as Pangkalanbun, Air Rupas, Manis Mata, Pontianak, Ketapang, Kotawaringin Lama and Balai Riam have also created another problem '€” the protracted haze crisis as a result of the deliberate burning of forests.

Among other places affected by the smog, provincial capital of Palangkaraya was hit by the worst smog ever recorded this year. Apart from regularly disrupting flight schedules to the capital and its regencies, the haze claimed the life of a nine-day baby and left dozens of people suffering from Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (ISPA).

Responding to complaints by aircraft passengers, a staff member of an airline serving the Jakarta '€” Pangkalanbun route said recently that during the current drought, flight delays were inevitable. He said the visibility was only 200 meters, while 2000 meters were needed for planes to land safely on the runway.

For most people in Central Kalimantan, with the Pollutant Standard Index reaching a lethal level, this year'€™s haze crisis was totally unbearable, causing them to temporarily halt their outdoor activities and to regularly visit hospitals to receive treatment for haze-related diseases.

Unclaimed water: A river flows through Sukamara regency. Local residents no longer have the luxury of taking their drinking water straight from the river, which has been contaminated by chemical fertilizers used to boost oil palm growth.(Setiono Sugiharto)Unclaimed water: A river flows through Sukamara regency. Local residents no longer have the luxury of taking their drinking water straight from the river, which has been contaminated by chemical fertilizers used to boost oil palm growth.(Setiono Sugiharto)

Handi (not his real name), a local resident of Palangkaraya who happened to visit Sukamara, said that the method of burning to clear land was often seen as a more efficient and effective way of opening new land for palm oil plantations, compared with other methods such as chopping trees using a chainsaw.

'€œWhat people do to open new land for palm oil plantations is just strike a match, set the grass and trees aflame and let the fire spread wildly throughout the wood, it'€™s that simple,'€ he said.

The government has yet to make a serious effort to put out the forest fires in Central Kalimantan province, and it will take a long time to do so successfully, as the hotspots of forest fires lie in primary peatlands, which can be 3 to 4 meter deep with decaying organic matter.

'€œThe biggest problem of extinguishing forest fires in Palangkaraya is that the hot spots are found in the primary peatlands, rather than in secondary peatlands, which range from only a half to 1 meter deep,'€ said Handi.

Handi, like other people in Sukamara and Palangkaraya, can only hope that the government imposes heavy sanctions on those responsible for deliberate burning forests in Central Kalimantan and other forest-fire prone provinces to prevent the lethal haze from reoccurring in the future.

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