The Jakarta Post
The city of Palembang in South of Sumatra will co-host the Asian Games from August to September and President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has ordered his aides and regional officials to focus on preventing the worst thing that could happen in the province at that time: major forest and land fires.
The haze resulting from raging fires would seriously disrupt the prestigious sporting event and put Indonesia’s reputation as the host on the line.
While the number of land and forest fires has significantly decreased in the past two years, with Jakarta issuing a number of fire prevention policies following the deadly 2015 fires, scientists say we may still need to worry that major fires could occur at around the time of the Games.
One of the reasons is that the country will be holding regional elections in June, only two months before the Games kick off.
Riau and South Sumatra were the most affected by recent forest and land fires on Sumatra. This year, the two provinces and some municipalities and regencies within them are set to elect new leaders.
The problem is that law enforcement against the people responsible for forest fires will be compromised during regional elections, said Herry Purnomo, a Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist.
Officers spray water on forest fires in a concession area in Tulung Selapan, Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, in this Oct. 28, 2015, file photo. (JP/Jerry Adiguna )
This was the conclusion he made based on a study he conducted with fellow CIFOR researchers in 2015.
"Regional leaders tend to ease law enforcement against perpetrators who happen to be their constituents in order to secure votes in the election," said Herry, who is also a professor at the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB).
The study found that the occurrence of major forest and land fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, two islands rich with peat swamp forests prone to fire, during the 2000-2015 period, had coincided with regional elections in the two areas. "This is my foremost worry," Herry said, referring to the potential for lax control over those who start fires during ahead of and during the regional elections.
In general, people have become more knowledgeable about fire prevention, especially by not clearing land for agricultural purposes by setting fire to it. Smallholders have begun complying with regulations, while big companies have started to meet their sustainability obligations as they fear having their business permits revoked.
However, Herry said the stern approach had less of an influence on another group of culprits: middle-scale farmers, who can be found across Sumatra, including in South Sumatra.
"This group is not daunted by the threat that faces big companies. They don't fear a legal case if they clear land with fire because basically they are not registered as legal entities," Herry said.
In the aftermath of the 2015 fires, which ravaged 640,000 hectares of forest and land in South Sumatra alone, attention was centered on the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), established by Jokowi to restore 2 million ha of peatland by 2020 in seven provinces, including the province.
Indonesian wokers work at the athletics venue in the Senayan sport complex in Jakarta on Oct. 12, 2017. Jakarta and Palembang will host the 2018 Asian Games on August 18 to Sept. 2. (Agence France -Presse/Adek Berry)
However, experts have said there has been no significant progress in peatland restoration efforts, blaming BRG's lack of authority on the ground, especially in dealing with companies that some experts claim have allies in line ministries.
"Restoring peatland to its wet condition is a significant aspect in fire prevention," said Teguh Surya, a researcher with the Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan, an NGO that focuses on forest and land management.
Teguh said fires were still looming large in South Sumatra – where peatlands are concentrated in Ogan Komering Ilir and Musi Banyuasin regencies -- partly because there had been no signs of significant peatland restoration by the BRG in the province. He added that the agency had never publicly revealed how much peatland it had restored there.
South Sumatra and Riau, meanwhile, have begun preparing for potential forest and land fires this year, mostly related to fire mitigation efforts.
Ampera Bridge at night. The bridge is an iconic landmark in Palembang. (Shutterstock/File)
The South Sumatra Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) has requested additional helicopters from Jakarta to be used to extinguish fires, while the Riau administration has considered declaring a state of emergency in the province to anticipate possible fires this year.
"South Sumatra has only five helicopters, which is insufficient. Moreover, the province will host the Asian Games in August, which could the one of the hottest periods [in 2018]," South Sumatra BPBD head Iriansyah said in December last year as quoted by Antara.
Palembang will host 10 sporting events, including women’s soccer, men’s soccer, basketball, a triathlon, shooting and sepak takraw competitions. (ahw)