Disaster relief agency says the worst is yet to come

The Jakarta Post, 5 March 2014

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) warned that forest fires could get worse next month when the country enters the dry season, saying that collective efforts involving all agencies were needed to address the problem.

In a meeting with lawmakers from the House of Representatives Commission VIII overseeing social affairs on Tuesday, BNPB chief Syamsul Maarif cited Sumatera and Kalimantan as the two provinces with the highest risk of forest fires this year.

He said this year’s drought would be worse than last year’s and could last up to September.

Syamsul called for stricter law enforcement on those responsible for forest fires, particularly large firms, saying the government needed to adopt a tougher stance.

“The forest doesn’t start the fires. People are usually to blame, so strict law enforcement needs to be enforced in order to deter perpetrators,” Syamsul said.

Syamsul said his agency was bracing for more hotspots this year than the total of 1,596 hotspots detected nationwide last year. He added this was because the forest fires this year had started much earlier.

“According to the air pollution standard index, more than 500 detected hotspots are already categorized as extremely dangerous,” he said

In March alone, as many as 34 hotspots were detected across Riau province as of last Monday — 17 in Jambi, four in Batanghari regency, three in West Tanjungjabung, six in East Tanjungjabung and two each in Muarojambi and Tebo.

Meanwhile, the Kualanamu Airport Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) in North Sumatra had previously announced that as many as 85 hotspots were recorded in the province.

Separately, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) urged the government to get tough on companies and financiers who were responsible for starting the forest fires.

Walhi found that 117 companies, both local and international such as those from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, were responsible for the fires that had now spread to six provinces. “We are disappointed that the police have blamed the fires on local residents, 26 of which have been named suspects. They should have pointed the finger at the plantation firms because they are the ones who control the land,” Walhi Riau chapter executive director Riko Kurniawan said.

According to Walhi’s recent data, in Riau alone, 90 percent of the province’s forests were controlled by plantation companies through concessions, while the locals only controlled the remaining 10 percent.

Riko said by naming a large number of local residents as suspects despite the fact the data showed the companies managed the majority of the forested areas indicated the government and authorities were soft on the industry.

However, Forestry Ministry spokesperson Sumarto played down the firms’ roles in the fires, blaming it on the slash-and-burn techniques used by local farmers to convert forested areas into rubber and oil palm plantations.

“This is the root of the problem and we keep working with local governments, Manggala Agni forest fire teams, and other relevant stakeholders to curb farmers’ slash-and-burn practices,” he told The Jakarta Post.

Aiming to boost prevention efforts of spread haze across Southeast Asia, the government and the House have agreed to ratify the ASEAN treaty on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a legally binding agreement that Indonesia, as well as all other ASEAN countries, signed in 2002.

Under the treaty, member countries must cooperate in preventing open burning, monitoring prevention efforts, sharing information.

After having initially rejecting the plan over fears that it could infringement on the country’s sovereignty, Indonesia is finally set to adopt the treaty particularly after the country was involved in a row with Singapore after the haze from Riau reached the neighboring country.