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Jakarta Post

Indonesian government remains vigilant on forest fires

  • Haeril Halim and Hans Nicholas Jong

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, January 24, 2017   /  05:47 am
Indonesian government remains vigilant on forest fires Firefighting – Fire fighters try to put out land fires in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, recently. (Courtesy of the Disaster Mitigation Agency in Pontianak, West Kalimantan/File)

While praising last year’s success in curbing land and forest fires, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has told regional heads to remain watchful in their respective regions and demanded the expansion of fire-prevention initiatives.

Jokowi reminded the dozens of regents, mayors and administrations from haze-prone regions he convened at the State Palace on Monday not to repeat “the mistakes of 2015”.

The fire season of 2015 saw the nation’s worst-ever haze crisis, which angered neighboring Singapore and Malaysia and caused Rp 221 trillion in economic losses to the country, an amount equal to 1.9 percent of national GDP in that year.

The fires, which damaged 2.6 million hectares of land and forests, claimed the lives of 24 people and brought respiratory problems to hundreds of thousands of people.

Jokowi told the local leaders to not become complacent despite the fact that the collective efforts made by the central government and local administrations had managed to contain land and forest fires last year, with almost no accidents. He added that this outcome was partly due to the La Niña weather phenomenon extending the rainy season.

The President said the focus in 2017 would be prevention and instructed all regional heads to declare emergency status as early as possible should they find any potential fire hot spots in their jurisdictions so that the central government could send aid.

“We all remember well how hard our struggle was in 2015, but all our efforts failed, because we were late to launch preventative measures. The [mistakes] of 2015 must not reoccur,” Jokowi said, staring sharply at his audience.

After a concerted effort by the central government, land and forest fires significantly decreased last year, with the total land area burned reduced to 438,360 ha. The number of hot spots also decreased by up to 82.1 percent according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites, and by up to 94.58 percent according to Terra and Aqua satellites.

As of Monday, only two regions, Rokan Hilir regency and Dumai city in Riau, had declared emergency status. However, Jokowi called on all nine haze-prone provinces to follow suit as between early and mid-January the government had recorded hot spots starting to emerge in six provinces, namely Jambi, Riau, Central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, West Sumatra and North Sumatra.

Jokowi also ordered relevant agencies to improve their early warning systems to detect hot spots and to have helicopters on standby. He also instructed them to prepare artificial rain before the dry season started in late January, the period when if left untreated hot spots can quickly turn into fires.

The President also ordered the National Police to thoroughly investigate and arrest all land burners and increase air patrols to monitor haze-prone regions, especially those in Riau and Kalimantan.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto said that as part of its preventative measures the government had dug 15,410 canals, 2.581 embung (ponds) and drilled 516 wells to raise the moisture of peatland areas in haze-prone provinces.

“In 2016, we also revoked three concession permits as well as suspended another nine permits. In total, 17 companies are under investigation. Local administrations have also reprimanded 115 companies,” Wiranto said.

Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) head Nazir Foead said that starting in 2017 the BRG would brief farmers as well as company representatives on how to clear land without burning.

“There are three available options. The first one is encouraging them to use tractors, but this way costs a lot of money. The second is encouraging them to burn trees they cut down inside drums to minimize the haze. This trick takes time,” Nazir said.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) research and environmental law department head Zenzi Suhadi argued that region’s merely raising the fire danger level from alert to emergency status would not be effective.

He says alert status should not just mean that the government is able to deploy necessary resources to extinguish fires.

“Alert status should mean that all costs of prevention, management and recovery from the fires and haze should be borne by those responsible for starting them. If we apply these conditions, then the alert status will be effective,” Zenzi said.

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