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Jakarta Post

Seeing Indonesia through the haze

  • Simon Tay

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Sat, October 10, 2015   /  04:14 pm

There are reasons to be frustrated and angry about the haze pollution, caused by fires in Indonesian provinces. There are also reasons to question whether real action will be taken and can be effective.

The problem is driven not by natural causes but by man-made deforestation and land clearance for the expansion of oil palm and pulp and paper plantations.

Addressing the root of the problem is even more problematic because of uncertain land rights, corruption, decentralization and conflicting rules.

Powerful corporations are involved and while some have made pledges for greater transparency and sustainability, others remain opaque and uncommitted.

Moreover, rather than consistent priority, there have been periods of inaction and statements by high-ranking Indonesian officials that play down the problem.

It would be easy to be cynical and last week, visiting Jakarta, I felt a sense of déjà vu.

Back in 1998, I had gone to see the Indonesian government and their minister for the environment. Even after then president Soeharto had accepted moral responsibility, not enough was done.

It didn'€™t seem to matter that Indonesians had suffered economic costs, estimated at some US$5 billion in terms of the fire damage, health costs and lost tourism.

Today, a '€œJakarta only'€ mindset persists. The fires and haze do not affect the capital where the rich and political elite live. The biggest companies have never faced prosecution. But my meetings last week give some reasons to be encouraged.

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has personally visited the worst affected areas, where the pollution is many times more than what neighboring states suffer.

He sees the problem as an '€œeconomic crime'€ that harms Indonesia and her people. An emergency has been declared and thousands of troops have been sent to help fire-fighting.

[...] look to President Jokowi to publicly set priorities and close any gaps in existing regulations.

The serious intention shows in the Situation Room in the State Palace. The room is fully set up to provide real time monitoring of the fires in Kalimantan and Riau, the worst hit provinces.

There is a team on hand to analyze the information and to gather reports from officials as well as community and NGOs on the ground.

Presidential chief of staff Teten Masduki assures me that updates are given every day to the President personally and he is anxious to move ahead.

A list of companies has been named for investigation and possible prosecution and the President has promised to solve the problem.

Is this too good to believe?

President Jokowi was elected as '€œthe people'€™s president'€, the first person outside the Jakarta elite to take up the top office. He promised to change things to help the vast majority of Indonesian citizens and yet, near the first anniversary of his election, this has proved difficult.

Opposition and differing factions within the governing party have slowed progress. A lack of coordination even amongst some ministers has created uncertainty.

A cabinet reshuffle has followed, with a change of the economic affairs team and in key positions closest to the President '€” including the chief of staff position that Pak Teten now occupies.

The Jokowi administration is under pressure to prove that it can be effective. In this context, the haze is not only an environmental issue but a test of government capacity and will.

No one should be naïve. The issues and interests behind the fires are complex and will not be resolved just by the word of one person, even the President. A full solution may well take three years, as President Jokowi has said publicly. Indeed, some analysts reckon that to be a highly ambitious target.

Some things can only be achieved in the longer term. One example is Indonesia'€™s One Map to authoritatively define ownership and approved uses of land concessions. Years of effort have been made but much more needs to be done.

There are, however, steps that can be taken more immediately if indeed greater and more focused efforts are being made by the administration.

First, beyond emergency fire-fighting, look to President Jokowi to publicly set priorities and close any gaps in existing regulations. For this, a presidential decree can set the agenda '€” and can be done by the executive without facing parliamentary opposition.

A second sign is whether the Palace will indeed move to speedily investigate and prosecute Indonesian companies, including the larger ones. Such action would be unprecedented.

Indonesian authorities should also share information about any Singapore-based companies so that prosecutions can proceed in the Singaporean courts.

Thirdly, watch the recent statement by Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi, that the country will accept offers of assistance from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, and even Russia.

This is a good sign and President Jokowi should take leadership on this issue by November for the Summit where leaders from ASEAN as well as major powers of the region will meet.

The problem is complex and has persisted, tragically and for too long. Fundamentally, the '€œJakarta only'€ mindset must change so that it is understood that the fires and haze, first and foremost, impact Indonesia, her people and her economy.

Much needs to be done and can be. But much depends on Indonesia and President Jokowi being willing and able to take the lead, with real action. If concrete steps are taken, all should put aside anger and cynicism '€” not only to applaud but to lend full support.


The writer chairs the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. The institute will organize a public exhibition on the causes of the fires and haze on Oct. 16-18 in Singapore.

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