Oil palm plantation companies like Sime Darby are saying that they aren’t responsible, and can’t control, the fires that happen in the local communities, except to help put them out. What are your thoughts on this?
If the local communities exist outside their concessions, perhaps you could say that they are not directly ‘responsible’ for those fires.
However, a lot of these concessions have communities living within the area. These communities normally have some sort of relationship with the company – either when some community members working on the plantations, or these families manage smaller estates and sell the produce to these companies under the ‘nucleus (company) and plasma (community)’ system. In this case, large companies would have to take responsibility over the actions of their communities within their concessions. Since the totality of the land is licensed to the companies, the company should not be able to pick and choose which parts of the land they want to be responsible for.
Some plantations companies have ‘socialization’ projects with these communities, which include spreading awareness on fire prevention, training, and demonstrations of alternative profitable techniques of clearing land among villagers. These also included training the surrounding community about what to expect during fires.
If these companies genuinely want to control fires, they should increase socialization projects among communities within their plantations, and also communities outside out close by. In the long run, this should prove beneficial for these companies too, as this would prevent accidental fires from the communities spreading onto mature plantation land and damaging their crops. These plantations could also take their projects further by sponsoring the machinery needed by the villagers to use mechanical methods for clearing land.
But recall that I mentioned the practise of some companies that hire local villagers to burn land close to their plantations, and letting the fires ‘accidentally’ spread to their land. Therefore, for companies like this, it may not actually be in their interest to educate these communities about fire control.
You mentioned that there has only been a company which was prosecuted for burning. Can I check which company this is?
PT Adei Plantation and Industry, which is a subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) Berhad, a Malaysian company. As far as I am aware this was the first and only successfully prosecuted case, but it might be worth you doing a quick cross check just to be sure if any latest cases have come up.