Indonesia cracks down on haze pollution, will it succeed?

Forest fires, and the haze pollution they cause, are increasingly becoming a serious national headache for Indonesia. The country has been a target of finger pointing by its ASEAN neighbors – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – year after year because of this seemingly perennial problem.

Riau province in central Sumatra has emerged as the chief culprit for the haze problem. Land clearing by burning forests has traditionally been seen as a cultural rite by local farmer. The problem is, big palm oil plantation companies have also resorted to similar methods when it comes to clearing lands, according to latest reports by Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (Walhi), or the Indonesian Forum for Environment, which is part of the Friends of the Earth network.

Haze pollution is not just a domestic headache for Indonesia, particularly for the provinces of Sumatra and West Kalimantan, where the problem occurs leading to dry seasons fro March to July. It has become a double-edged sword, affecting the local communities both on the health and economic aspects, and leading to “national shame” when neighboring countries start complaining about haze.

In August this year, a number of districts and cities in Riau had to bear forest fires, prompting the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) to deploy three helicopters on water bombing missions. According to Jim Gafur of the agency’s Prevention and Preparedness Section, the helicopters were sent to three areas worst hit by forest fire, Rokan Hilir, Dumai and Bengkalis.

In addition to sending helicopters, fire extinguishing operations have been undertaken by means of artificial rain.

The Indonesian government seems to have taken a serious note of the problem. Jakarta is about 2,000 kilometres from Pekanbaru, the capital of the Riau province, and many observers feel local administration hasn’t done enough to curb the practice because of its distant location from the capital. For all practical purposes, it’s up to the central government in Jakarta to resolve the problem.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the Valuing Nature Award from the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and the WWF in 2012 for conserving the nation’s natural resources, finds himself in the spotlight every time the problem is reported.

The President had taken stern action this March.

“If, within the next one or two days, the Riau administration and the ministers cannot tackle (this problem), then I’ll take over the leadership and control (of the problem),” Yudhoyono said in a statement via his Twitter on March 13, 2014. He landed at Riau airport on March 16 and led control of the fires by directing field personnel on how to deal with the problem decisively. He declared forest fires and haze pollution as national calamities, effectively putting the matter under the central government’s financing and control.

He has since then called on law enforcers to impose tough punishments on those burning forests, saying smoke disasters in the province of Riau would persist if law enforcers were lenient. “Seventy percent of land fires in Riau were [done] on purpose. Without deterrent effects, hundreds of billions will be wasted to solve this problem,” the President said during a meeting with regional leaders and business owners at the residence of the Riau governor in Pekanbaru later that day.

Based on data available with Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) in Jakarta, forest and land fires in Riau Province between February 2014 and April 2014 caused economic losses worth at least Rp20 trillion (roughly USD 2 billion). They have affected at least 25,000 hectares of forest, plantation and peat-soil areas throughout the province. They disrupted around 30 percent of economic activities, in addition to over 60,000 people that needed medical treatments for respiratory problems up to end of July 2014.

So far, Riau police have arrested and named 183 people who had allegedly committed crimes of burning bushes or forests. A total of 116 suspects have been nabbed while undertaking forest crime activities between January 2014 and March 2014, while 67 others were named as suspects during the period April 5, 2014 to July 10. “The number of suspects could increase because the on-field team is still on the lookout for criminals responsible for new forest fires,” Riau Police spokesman Adjunct Senior Commissioner Guntur Aryo Tejo had said recently.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has urged the Riau Province Administration not to issue more permits for oil palm plantations, as two million hectares of the plantations is illegal or has no permit. Four of the eight million hectares of plantation area of Riau Province has been used for growing oil palm. “Theoretically, additional permit may not be issued,” the minister had said, adding just 2,0 million of the total 4,0 million hectares of oil palm plantation area have an official permit for forest conversion.

Indonesia introduced a law against burning in 1999 after widespread fires in the two preceding years caused a thick haze to blanket parts of Indonesia and neighboring countries. The law carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a 10-billion-rupiah (USD 1 million) fine. The enforcement of the law nevertheless has been weak. Therefore, the Indonesian government has taken over matters related to forest fires, calling them a matter of national affair, not anymore a provincial issue.

At a meeting in Myanmar May this year, leaders of ASEAN noted transboundary haze pollution remains a concern in the region. In this regard, they agreed to further intensify regional and international cooperation including those under the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), particularly to promote efforts among ASEAN Member States to ensure the full and effective implementation of the zero burning techniques in land clearing. They acknowledged the ASEAN Sub-regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) is a useful tool to assist in monitoring and internal enforcement actions against irresponsible parties contributing to fires.

The ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution is a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002 by all the ASEAN nations to reduce haze pollution in Southeast Asia. The agreement recognizes trans-boundary haze pollution, which results from land and/or forest fires, should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.