Indonesian V-P Boediono demands tougher action on haze

This article was first published on Sept 24, 2014

Indonesian Vice-President Boediono has ordered cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations to be stepped up and sustained over the next few weeks to put out forest and plantation fires and combat the haze.

Fires continue to rage in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Dr Boediono chaired an emergency meeting with governors and police chiefs from affected provinces yesterday in Palembang, where his air force plane had to circle for 15 minutes before landing due to thick haze. He also instructed officials to step up prevention and law enforcement efforts, saying: "Law enforcement is key. It is at the root of what we do not want to happen."

The meeting comes as the Parliament last week agreed to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, 12 years after it was signed, and as the country is keen to signal it is taking a tougher stand on forest fires and the haze.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is also scheduled to address the United Nations Climate Summit this week.

Yesterday, haze shrouded Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, while in Merangin, Jambi, visibility on the streets was down to 300m and motorists in many areas had to use headlights during the day. Smoke haze was visible in parts of Sumatra and southern Kalimantan, Singapore's National Environment Agency said.

Weak law enforcement has seen a recurrence of forest and land fires that have often spread uncontrollably during the dry season over the past two decades.

Mr Rafles Panjaitan, director for forest fire control at the forestry ministry, said deterrent sanctions are needed to stop recalcitrant village heads who allow individuals, often from outside the village, to cultivate land which they then clear by the slash-and-burn method. "Ninety-nine per cent of the fires are started deliberately," he told The Straits Times.

Officials said fires had burned 11,801ha of land this year, and fires had been put out on some 4,051ha.

Police have also investigated 186 criminal cases involving forest fires and interrogated 283 suspects, including two companies. Of these, 14 cases have been concluded in court, with jail sentences ranging from one to two years imposed.

But General Sutarman, the national police chief, said the sentences were too light. "They do not send a deterrent effect that would hold back residents from wanting to burn to clear land."

Separately, Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh told The Straits Times in an e-mailed interview that environment ministers from all 10 Asean countries will discuss details of setting up a centre to better tackle the haze when they meet in Laos next month.

He said the Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control will help conduct training and capacity-building activities to strengthen preparedness and mitigate the impact of land and forest fires in the region. It will also raise awareness of transboundary haze issues and coordinate and mobilise resources to tackle the problem.

"With the agreement now ratified by all Asean member states, with Asean (putting into operation) the necessary regional legal framework, we have now a comprehensive mechanism to assist in addressing transboundary haze in the region," he added.

Additional reporting by Zakir Hussain