Skip to main content



To stop the haze, take aim at land policies

When Mr Prayoto was born in Riau in 1980, oil palms occupied less than 10,000ha in the Indonesian province in central Sumatra. When he turned 21 and started working at the Riau Provincial Forestry Service, the figure breached one million hectares. It has since grown to four million.

Follow us on TikTok and Instagram, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

When Mr Prayoto was born in Riau in 1980, oil palms occupied less than 10,000ha in the Indonesian province in central Sumatra. When he turned 21 and started working at the Riau Provincial Forestry Service, the figure breached one million hectares. It has since grown to four million.

Accompanying the dramatic oil palm boom is the growth in the pulp and paper sector. Riau is home to two of the world’s largest pulp mills, operated by two mega players that together hold concession rights to more than one-fifth of Riau’s total land area.

Along with the explosive growth in Riau’s plantation sector, Mr Prayoto also bore witness to every haze episode until he left to pursue his doctorate in Japan last month. “Whenever the smoke comes, my asthma gets worse,” said the remote sensing specialist, who used to analyse fire locations for the provincial government when we met in Jakarta in September. That meeting was thrice delayed. Getting the plane off the ground was no straightforward affair in haze-filled Pekanbaru.

At the recent Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development, Singapore’s then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is now Foreign Minister, hit out at haze-causing plantation groups for “privatising the gain and socialising the pain”.

Mr Prayoto is one of the many victims of such a business model. In the latest haze spell, some 20 haze-related deaths were reported and more than half-a-million people were treated for acute lung problems in Indonesia.

The impact goes beyond Indonesia and its immediate neighbours. When fires razed more than two million hectares of land in the country, it released more than 1.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, making it a more significant contributor to global climate change than far bigger economies including Russia and Japan, said US think-tank World Resources Institute.

While the plantation sector is a significant source of employment in Indonesia, Mr Prayoto is convinced that the local communities have little to benefit from it, having seen how production forests, plantation permits and profits are distributed in Riau.

At first glance, small businesses in Riau’s oil palm sector have their fair share of the pie. While the sector was first dominated by big enterprises, small firms overtook them in plantation area by 2003, according to analysis by academics Junji Nagata and Sachiho W Arai, in the book The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.

However, based on Mr Prayoto’s observations, a good number of these small companies are registered by bigger plantation groups or private investors, many of whom are middle-class Medanese from North Sumatra. Job opportunities at the plantations also often go to migrants from North Sumatra and Java.

Many locals in Riau, on the other hand, find themselves losing access to their customary land when village leaders sell land to companies for personal profit. In some cases, locals are made title holders — but in name only. Mr Prayoto said companies and investors sometimes use the local people’s names to bypass restrictions on plantation size or to avoid responsibilities when caught using fire to clear land.

The duopolistic pulp and paper sectoris even less popular among locals in Riau. In 2012, an indigenous group from the Teluk Meranti village famously stitched their lips to protest against the government’s concession of their customary land to a pulp and paper player. Locals also complain that the extensive cultivation of acacia pulpwood trees on peatlands affects their sago crops. Sago thrives well in naturally waterlogged peat soil, but acacia roots do not. Hence, extensive drainage is required before growing acacia, heightening the risk of fire.

In the face of such frustrations, some local communities have “encroached” into areas that they see as theirs. Where there is encroachment, there is fire, as the locals clear land to make space for their own crops, Mr Prayoto said.

While he is sympathetic to their plight, he said they do contribute to the haze in a significant way and will continue to do so if they are deprived of their customary land and livelihood.


The Indonesian government recognises the need to have a fairer land distribution system. A new rule passed in 2013 to cap the size of a plantation company’s total oil palm estates at 100,000 ha (Papua excluded) was meant to address this issue. But the rule is not retrospective, and does not apply to listed companies that are majority-owned by the public.

As such, it is important to make sure concession holders who are exempted from the rule are developing responsibly. Compliance audits should be strengthened to ensure they have allocated sufficient budget and acquired adequate equipment for mechanical land clearing, fire prevention and mitigation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has acknowledged the urgency for land reforms. He set up a new Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry to lead the One Map Initiative and resolve overlapping land claims, which often lead to fire-causing encroachment and, at times, deadly conflicts. He also tasked the new Ministry of Environment and Forestry to oversee the transfer of 12.7 million hectares of forests to local communities by 2019. This recognition of customary rights will go a long way in not only reducing land disputes and haze pollution, but also boosting investment confidence.

While there is no lack of well-meaning policies, implementation at the local level is always a challenge, said Mr Maturidi, a Kalteng Pos journalist from Pelangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, where the air turned into shades of yellow as the pollution index spiked

The concentration of land ownership is even more evident in Kalimantan than Riau, showed a study last year by Indonesian NGO TuK and Dutch consultancy Profundo. Further, half of the tycoon-controlled land bank in Kalimantan, estimated at three million hectares, is not planted yet. The social and environmental consequences can be enormous if further expansion is pursued in an unsustainable way.

The resource sector remains important to the economy, both Mr Prayoto and Mr Maturidi said. But if a sound land distribution system and profit-sharing model remain mere promises on paper, the vision of a haze-free ASEAN by 2020 is probably beyond reach.


Cheong Poh Kwan is Assistant Director for the Sustainability Programme at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Mr Prayoto, Mr Maturidi and other delegates from Indonesia’s worst-hit provinces will share their personal stories at a public seminar at the SIIA on 23 November 2015.

Read more of the latest in



Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.