Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Indonesian Ulema Takes Stand against Forest Burning

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Indonesian Ulema Takes Stand against Forest Burning

Article excerpt

EVERY YEAR, during extended dry periods, fires are deliberately started in parts of Indonesia in order to clear forest land of trees. Many small farmers and plantation owners follow this practice, though the main culprits are probably the latter. Each year, the burning destroys more forest, replacing diversity with monoculture (oil palms are the main plantation trees) and further eroding the habitat in which endangered animals such as orangutans, tigers and Sumatran rhinoceroses live.

The burning results in haze, caused by fine particles that rise up into the air and are then carried considerable distances by the wind. In Singapore, it is bad enough when this happens: the air smells of burning, visibility is reduced and there are daily haze reports that advise people on what precautions they may need to take to protect their health. Yet this may be caused by fires that are 200 or more miles away. It is certainly worse for Indonesians living in cities and towns near where the burning is taking place.

Last year's burning was particularly bad, with 125,000 individual fires devastating 875,000 hectares of peatland. Fires in woodland on peat can continue to burn underground even when flames are no longer visible on the ground, and then blaze up again.

Indonesian government responses have been weak, with very few prosecutions of offenders taking place, and the burning has continued. Now the highest Muslim religious body in Indonesia has stepped in with a strong statement against forest burning.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia-MUI) issued a fatwa condemning the practice on Sept. 13, after being requested in January to look into doing so. The council studied the problem carefully before adopting a public position.

At a media conference in Jakarta announcing the fatwa, board member Huzaemah Tahido Yanggo said:

"Burning forest and land can cause further destruction, environmental hazards, general loss, health issues, and many others. That is why MUI declared forest burning as 'haram,' meaning unlawful, sinful and thus strongly prohibited."

In addition, Huzaemah said that facilitating, conniving or benefiting from forest burning is haram as well."With this moral regulation," he said, "we hope that people's behavior can be altered."

He told AFP, "The Qur'an states that we are not allowed to harm the environment, and forest burning causes damage not only to the environment, but also to people's health-even neighboring countries are complaining."

The MUI also made recommendations to central and local governments, as well as to corporations and the general public, and intends to release a booklet setting out its views.

This is not the first time the MUI has issued fatwas on environmental problems. It has also issued them on the protection of the environment, waste management and wildlife protection: in March 2014, a fatwa said that illegal hunting and trafficking of wild animals was haram. That fatwa called on Muslims to play an active part in protecting Indonesia's threatened species, including elephants, orangutans, rhinoceroses and tigers.

Perhaps encouraged by this Indonesian example, ulema in a couple of Malaysian states have issued fatwas on environmental problems this year. In February, ulema in the state of Terengganu issued a fatwa against the hunting of protected species of animals, and in March ulema in the small northern state of Perlis put out a fatwa that said it is haram to purposely pollute the environment.

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