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Jakarta Post

International engagement to kill our forest fires

  • Wimar Witoelar

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, October 24, 2014   /  10:33 am

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has never been a foreign minister or diplomat, but he has a keen sense of the world and the reciprocal interests it has with the national needs of Indonesia. As a businessman he had from early on linked his products to international markets and frequently participated in international fora. As a mayor he was internationally recognized and won several awards.

Now there is the exciting prospect of extending his global view to the presidency. This will allow him to meet domestic issues with the power of broad perspectives.

It will jump-start his presidency beyond the reach of petty political opposition. Jokowi, who won the election by grassroots popular support, can make his presidency a success through strategic foreign policy.

One major challenge facing him at the dawn of his presidency is the resolution of the decades-long horror of forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

They occur like an annual event but draw international concern as their impact spreads beyond national borders. And the solutions may well come from international cooperation.

Many hard decisions await our new president in the first weeks of his watch. Few offer more challenges and opportunities than action on forest fires. Delaying brings loss of life and huge material damage. In the big picture, forest degradation means less protection against climate change disaster not just for Indonesia but also the world.

Rapidly the forest fires in Riau and other hot spots have become international crisis centers.

The forest fires in Riau have been a depressing annual occurrence for 17 years. Under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia took a positive step as the House of Representatives finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution after 10 years of reluctance.

Ironically, as Greenpeace has pointed out, the ratification was followed by the closure of schools in Palembang, Inderalaya, Kayuagung and Muara Enim because forest fires had brought air quality down to dangerous levels.

Greenpeace Indonesia head Longgena Ginting says forest fires have remained unabated because the government is not attacking the problem in a comprehensive manner.

The approach has been firefighting and not shooting at the roots of the problem. The key to the solution, Greenpeace says, is total protection of the peatland ecosystem. This includes a non-negotiable extension of the forest moratorium that is due in May 2015.

The challenge is clear. The opportunities are less self-evident but could well define Jokowi'€™s presidency in the foreign policy area.

The crux of the problem is that forest fires, like all forms of forest degradation, are spurred by the misguided interests of the political and business elites in the regions and at the center. It is an important challenge for Jokowi to stop this vicious circle.

The striking success of the Yudhoyono government in the reconstruction of Aceh put Indonesia firmly among nations with a capacity of absorbing international cooperation for the benefit of the domestic public.

Credit should also go to Jusuf Kalla, vice president then and now, for successfully completing the peace process started by President Abdurrahman '€œGus Dur'€ Wahid. This actually set the pattern for Indonesia'€™s prowess in international relations.

We are reminded of the current reputation of Yudhoyono internationally when he made a historic speech at the Pittsburgh G20 meeting in November 2009, which led to the international cooperation on REDD+ now spearheading our action on climate change.

Jokowi faces urgent priorities in the first weeks of his presidency. Most urgently, managing a difficult budget and coming to terms with the fuel-subsidy burden.

Setting a productive agenda to meet expectations as a man of action is not a simple task. But it offers an excellent opportunity for him to live up to expectations as a man of strategic action.

A quick but intense visit to study the forest fires in Sumatra would energize the new government to take effective action.

It would make our neighboring countries feel relieved of debilitating smoke and pour respect on President Jokowi.

It sets the course for a convergence between domestic and international concerns. It would establish the new President as a positive player on the global scene.

There will be several global events in the very near future, notably APEC and the G20 in November 2014. Jokowi will be there fresh with the historic victory of democracy.

Making a mark at these international events will continue his winning streak as he takes domestic action in the context of international assertiveness.

Should he maintain the momentum through next year, Jokowi will do his nation and the world tremendous good by sharing his success on the environment by delivering a speech at the 2015 climate change summit in Paris.

We will then have our popular President firmly on the world stage. And Indonesia will become a major world force.


The writer was a spokesman for the late Abdurrahman '€œGus Dur'€ Wahid, president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001.

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