The Jakarta Post, 20 Jun 2013
Amid criticism from its neighbors, Malaysia and Singapore, over the cross-border haze and deteriorating air quality affecting the two countries, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa talked tough on the issue, saying that ASEAN members should collaborate to address the situation rather than lay blame.
“The approach must be one of collaboration and partnership, not one of apportioning blame here and there. Let’s focus on putting the fires out,” Marty told a press conference.
Numerous hot spots created by slash-and-burn activities by several agricultural firms operating in Sumatra, particularly in Riau province, have reportedly resulted in thick haze over Singapore and some parts of Malaysia.
Singapore has urged Indonesia to provide data on the companies and concession maps to enable it to act against the plantation firms that employ slash-and-burn methods, adding that air pollution on the island had hit unhealthy levels with some of the worst readings since the 1997 regional haze crisis.
“Calls of such a type are actually a bit redundant, in the sense that we in Indonesia, the government and our people, want those responsible to be held accountable,” said Marty, commenting on the request.
“There is actually no need for such a demand. We are fully aware of the impact and consequences and the need for action,” Marty added.
The minister confirmed he had received phone calls from his counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore, but he refused to offer details, saying only that they had “exchanged information about the situation”.
Marty cited similar haze problems in other countries.
“Recently, we have seen a number of forest fires in the US and Australia. When those broke out, I think the first instinct was to express sympathy and solidarity, rather than wanting to blame somebody,” he continued, adding that there would be technical meetings between Indonesian and Singaporean officials on the issue in the coming few days.
Marty admitted that the government had not ratified the ASEAN trans-boundary haze pollution treaty, which was signed some 12 years ago. He said it was still undergoing a legislative process at the House of Representatives.
“We have to go through a certain process to ensure there is full consensus on the treaty. Even without ratification, as a matter of fact, we have complied with the requirements of the agreement,” Marty said.
Forestry Ministry secretary-general Hadi Daryanto said the ministry was ready to partner with Singapore in tracing the firms behind the fires in Riau. “We are keen to join with neighboring countries to identify the perpetrators; and the sanctions imposed will be imprisonment, fines and permit revocations,” Hadi said.
He added, however, that the country needed cooperation from Singapore and Malaysia to track down and prevent future blazes, considering that a number of companies operating in the area hailed from the two countries.
The haze itself is believed to emanate from Bengkalis and Dumai in Riau following peat land fires in the region. A blanket of thick haze has covered Bengkalis and Dumai over the past week and the number of respiratory infections has increased.
In Bengkalis, the number of people suffering from respiratory infections reached 531 as of June 17, jumping from only 387 a month earlier.
Data at the Dumai health office showed that the number of patients with respiratory problems treated at local community health centers (puskesmas) and hospitals totaled 393 as of June 19, up from 351 in early June.
Residents have been told to reduce outdoor activities, while those who have to go outdoors are advised to wear masks over their noses and mouths, and helmets and jackets to protect the eyes and skin from irritation. Meanwhile, the Bengkalis administration has called on the central government to immediately dispatch assistance to help tackle the disaster.
Bengkalis Deputy Regent Suayatno said the fires, which have destroyed vast hectares of rubber and oil palm plantations and bush, had been raging since March 1.
He said the Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) and local fire fighters had dispatched all their personnel to extinguish the fires, but the flames continued to spread due to strong winds and very dry weather.
Anggi M. Lubis contributed to the story