Indonesia plans to claw back concessions in peatlands that have not been cultivated to prevent companies from using the slash- and-burn method to clear land, which often leads to uncontrollable fires.
"The government is firm, we will revoke the licences of peatland concessions held by companies that have not been used or planted," Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said.
The former general in the army's special forces was speaking to The Sunday Times yesterday in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, where he was inspecting firefighting operations with a high- level team from various ministries and government agencies.
FORCED TO TURN BACK
We hovered trying to find a clear hole to pass through, but we didn't make it.
MR LUHUT PANDJAITAN, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, on failing to penetrate the haze during a helicopter trip to Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan yesterday
Fires have raged across many parts of Indonesia, with Sumatra and Kalimantan the hardest hit.
According to estimates by the Joko Widodo administration, the forest fires behind the thick haze that has blanketed many parts of South-east Asia in the last two months have destroyed 1.7 million hectares of land in Indonesia.
The dry spell, exacerbated by a prolonged El Nino season this year, has already made it difficult to put out the fires. But what has continued to wear down the morale of firefighters is that half of fires are on carbon-rich peatlands that are being drained and cleared particularly for oil palm and pulpwood plantations.
President Joko Widodo has since May extended a government moratorium on the clearing of forests for commercial activities. This is the second time the ban on issuing concessions to plantation firms has been renewed since a presidential decree was issued in May 2011 as part of a larger goal of reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.
The latest move revealed by Mr Luhut yesterday is a clear indication that the Indonesian government is now ready to listen to green advocates, who have said that peatland restoration must be the focus of any efforts aimed at ending the haze crisis.
The current fires raging mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra have shown no signs of abating, prompting the Indonesian government to mobilise its navy and several government agencies in what appears to be a massive operation, both on land and at sea.
The evacuation of thousands of babies and children from their homes, particularly in Kalimantan, seems imminent as the toxic haze sent the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in the province soaring over 2,400, way over the hazardous threshold of 350.
This was despite extensive firefighting resources having been deployed to put out the flames.
It was like a scene out of hell during Mr Luhut's visit to Kalimantan yesterday, when the thick haze reduced visibility to a point where motorists - much less pilots trying to take off - found it impossible to drive.
Mr Luhut's helicopter, which was meant to take him to the Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan, was forced to turn back in mid-air. He and his group, which included three journalists, had to make the journey by land.
"We hovered trying to find a clear hole to pass through, but we didn't make it," he said after landing back in Banjarbaru. "We are here to check on the ground the preparation for evacuation."
Many residents in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan's capital, have started moving on their own to Banjarmasin in the south of the province.
"In the worst-case scenario, we will move more of them south... to Banjarmasin," said Mr Luhut.
"If Banjarmasin is also affected by the haze, then we move them to warships."