Of the 11,138 hectares of forest area that were razed by fires across the Riau province, about 3,000 hectares were located inside the GSK-BB biosphere reserve, Brigadier General Prihadi Agus Irianto, the head of the Riau Haze Disaster Response Task Force, said in Pekanbaru in Riau on Tuesday (March 4).
The GSK-BB, which is located in the Bengkalis and Siak districts in the Riau province, gained the UNESCOs recognition as a biosphere reserve in 2009; the recommendation was made by the Sinar Mas Forestry (SMF) pulp and paper company.
Biosphere reserve is one of the ways to preserve the worlds ecosystem, including the bio and cultural diversity contained therein, and as a means of mitigating the negative effect of global warming.
The biosphere reserve was the first reserve initiated by the industrial sector. The proposal had been prepared by the Sinar Mas Forestry (SMF) and submitted to the UNESCO in Paris through Indonesias ministry of forestry in September 2008 and October 2008.
As part of the Sumatras peat swamp eco-region, GSK-BB possesses a unique habitat and plays a significant role to help sustain the populations of rare, endangered and endemic species.
About 189 plant species, consisting of 113 families and 59 genera are reported to thrive in this area. Twenty nine of the plant species in the habitat are categorized as a protected species under Appendix 1 and 3 of CITES.
Based on a study made by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), there are at least 159 ape species, 10 mammal species and 13 fish species, as well as 8 reptile species in the area.
The 705,271-hectare GSK-BB biosphere reserve consists of three zones, namely the Core zone (178,722 hectare), Buffer zone (222,426 hectare) and the Transitional Zone (304,123 hectare).
The Core zone is dominated by peat swamp forests. The plant species existing in the area include Gonystylus bancanus (ramin), Palaquium leiocarpus (nyatoh), Durio carinatus (durian burung), Shorea teysmanniana (meranti bunga) and Tetramerista glabra (punak).
Several rare animal species are reported to exist in the Core zone and listed as a protected and endangered species under the Appendix 1 CITES and include two species of birds (hornbill Buceros bicornis and Mycteria cynerea), Sumatra elephant (Elephas maximus) and Sumatra tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae).
The Buffer zone, or non-conservation area, is an area that can be converted into production and industry forest to produce wood for the Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group. The Transitional zone is mostly managed by the local community.
Based on aerial monitoring, there were signs that the fires in the biosphere reserve were set deliberately, as there were abandoned camps and several chainsaws spotted in the fire locations, the brigadier general said.
The Riau forest offices head, Zulkifli Yusuf, recently said the biosphere reserve is now badly damaged due to human encroachment and fires.
When visiting the biosphere reserve on Wednesday (March 5), Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan stated that 2,000 newcomers had encroached and set fires in the GSK-BB biosphere reserve.
"Currently, about 2,000 people hailing from the North Sumatra province have encroached in the biosphere reserve in the Riau province. They have cleared the forest area for oil palm plantation," Minister Zulkifli said at the Roesmin Nurjadin air force base in Pekanbaru.
The encroachment occurred in the biosphere reserves Core zone. "We strongly suspect that they were deliberately sent to Riau to encroach in the biosphere reserve," he said.
The minister stated that it was not easy to enter the main zone without a mass mobilization and financial backup.
He suspected that they were directed to the forest to clear land by cutting trees, whose wood was later sold, and setting fires to get rid of the bushes for oil palm plantation.
"It would be impossible for them to enter the main zone in such a big group of up to 2,000 people," Minister Zulkifli said.
Commander of the Riau Haze Emergency Response Task Force, Brigadier General Prihadi Agus Irianto, said the new encroachers, most likely, had been staying in the biosphere zone for a long time given that there were plenty of trees that had been logged illegally and small huts built inside the forest.
The Indonesian army has deployed some 180 personnel to help extinguish the fires and arrest the encroachers, he added.
The Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI) criticized Sinar Mas Forestry for being weak in managing and protecting the biosphere reserve. The NGO blamed the company for the damage of the reserve.
"If the peat land is damaged, other surrounding peat land areas will also be damaged. It happens every year. The fires and illegal logging inside the biosphere reserve happens every year, even before it was recognized by the UNESCO," executive director of WALHI of the Riau Chapter. Riko Kurniawan, said.
He warned that the UNESCO might revoke the biosphere reserve recognition because GSK-BB has lost its function as a biosphere reserve.
In February 2014 alone, encroachers burned 600 hectares of the biosphere reserve area and converted them into oil palm plantations, he said.
The Sinar Mas Groups pulp and paper subsidiary denied that it was negligent in protecting the GSK-BB biosphere reserve currently being razed by fires.
"We were not negligent. It is the encroachers who should be blamed. I just want to ask, who should be responsible for protecting such a vast forest area? Should every meter of the forest area be guarded by a man," spokesman of Sinar Mas Nurul Huda said here on Thursday.
He admitted that the Buffer zone of the biosphere reserve is the concession of Sinar Mas. However, the reserves Core zone is the responsibility of the Riau provincial administration.
The company claimed that it cares for the protection of the GSK-BB and has coordinated with the Bengkalis police to protect the forest and detain encroachers.
Of the 3,000 hectares of biosphere reserve area that is currently being razed by fires, around 8,00 hectares are located inside the biosphere reserves Core zone and the remaining 2,200 hectares are in the Buffer and Transitional zones, the forestry ministrys director general of forest protection and natural resources, Sonny Partono, said in Pekanbaru on March 5.
The biosphere reserve is a priority for fire extinguishing efforts using aircraft, including rented Sikorsky planes capable of dropping 4,000 liters of water.
"These have become the task forces priority in the efforts to put out the Riau fires, because the biosphere reserve has been recognized internationally," he said.
The task force, which has a total of 325 members, including 170 army officers, is trying to extinguish at least 12 hotspots detected in the biosphere reserve by dropping water bombs from four helicopters, including those belonging to Sinar Mas.
Thick smog haze, however, hampered attempts to drop water bombs, but the helicopters managed to reach the fire sites after several attempts.
Chief of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) Syamsul Maarif expressed his shock after viewing GSK-BB, which was severely damaged due to encroachment by illegal loggers.
"Dont police know about this encroachment?" Maarif asked here on Thursday (March 6) after an aerial viewing of the ongoing fires at the biosphere reserve by helicopter.
Maarif, who was accompanied by Deputy Governor of Riau, Arsyadjuliandi Rahman, noticed that the fires had burned an industrial forest, which is a concession of PT Arara Abadi, a subsidiary of Sinar Mas Forestry Company.
"This is too much and must be dealt with immediately," he said.
"In the future, the biosphere reserve should be strictly guarded by involving the army and police personnel, who must immediately arrest anybody who tries to encroach and set fires in the area," he said. (*)