Indonesia to map forest fires

This article was first published on Sept 23, 2014

Indonesia plans to map forest fires in Sumatra which cause severe haze in the region so as to identify the sources and nip them in the bud, a senior adviser to President-elect Joko Widodo has said.

The plan, if implemented, will be a fillip to the region's fight against the recurring pollution. It also marks another step by Indonesia towards that end, following the country's ratification of a 12-year-old Asean anti-haze pact last week.

General (Ret) Luhut Pandjaitan also said Indonesia was keen to work with countries in the region to fight the security threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group. He called the group one of three immediate challenges facing Mr Joko, 53, who won the presidential election on July 9 and will be sworn in on Oct 20.

Gen Luhut, a retired veteran of Indonesia's Special Forces Command (Kopassus), who has served as trade minister as well as ambassador to Singapore from 1999 to 2000, said the haze is one issue Mr Joko will deal with during his term.

"This is one issue he's going to tackle in the near future... We'll have to at least minimise it," Gen Luhut told reporters yesterday after delivering a public lecture organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on challenges and opportunities facing the Joko government.

Asked what concrete measures the new administration will take, he said: "We have a plan, to have one map that can identify easily the source of this pollution.

"We can (then) see easily, identify who the owner of this land is, and maybe we can call him to ask him why (he) did it."

To fight the haze, which brought off-the-charts pollution to Singapore and Malaysia last year, the authorities need to be able to pinpoint land cleared by fires during the June-to-October dry season, before taking its owner to task.

Singapore passed a law last month that sanctions fines against companies for fires on their land if the resultant haze affects the Republic.

But many of the available maps from public records of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry are incomplete and outdated.

Gen Luhut yesterday suggested that those maps could be updated for Indonesia's economic development as well. "The map will not be just about the haze, it will also be (for) our own interests, such as forestry protection, licences for this and that," he said.

The haze problem cannot be solved overnight but the intention to fix it is "very much" there, he said, in response to a question on Mr Joko's will to solve it.

Gen Luhut, who was the first commander of Kopassus' controversial counter-terrorism unit Detachment 81, is now a businessman and philanthropist.

He was also a key member of Mr Joko's presidential campaign team and has been touring the region to explain the policy direction of the Joko administration to governments and investors.

He arrived in Singapore from Hong Kong last Friday and has held meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan.

At yesterday's lecture at the Sheraton hotel, Gen Luhut told a 200-strong audience that Mr Joko's priorities will be domestic. These include implementing economic initiatives such as a substantial fuel price hike as early as November, forging a coalition in Parliament where his supporters are in the minority, as well as dealing with the rising security threat posed by ISIS.

He said the Joko administration will work with its regional counterparts to counter the threat, such as through sharing intelligence, even as he downplayed any cooperation Indonesia may engage in with the United States.

The US has banned Kopassus from bilateral military training over human rights abuses that the unit committed during the 1999 East Timor crisis, but Gen Luhut said Indonesia will rely on Kopassus to put down any security threat on its soil.

"ISIS is our common enemy... Why should we go far away (to enhance cooperation) with America?" he said.

"Our priority is with our surrounding countries - with Singapore, for instance, with Malaysia, Australia, the countries surrounding us. We'll do this together; we cannot do it alone."

seokhwai@sph.com.sg