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Indonesia Battles Raging Forest Fires, Takes Heat On Transboundary Haze

  • Kate Lamb

FILE - An aerial view of smoke rising from burnt trees during haze in Indonesia's Riau province, June 28, 2013.

FILE - An aerial view of smoke rising from burnt trees during haze in Indonesia's Riau province, June 28, 2013.

Forest fires in the Indonesian province of Riau continue to rage a week after a state of emergency was declared. From Jakarta, the central government makes efforts to fight the flames - and the thorny issue of transnational haze.

Over the past week, the government has employed water-bombing planes and cloud seeding in an attempt to control the fires roaring through Riau’s forests, but a reported 8,000 hectares remains engulfed in flames.

Speaking from Riau’s capital of Pekanbaru, Sutopo Nugroho, the spokesperson for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, said conditions could worsen. Nugroho said that the prolonged dry spell in the lead up to summer could intensify the blazes.

Without sufficient action to extinguish the current fires, he said, these conditions are also likely to have a negative impact on food and energy supplies.

Over the past week, huge swathes of land have been destroyed, flights have been delayed and schools shut down. The levels of haze have also caused a spike in respiratory illnesses.

Riau province, on the island of Sumatra, is a major palm oil producer and, despite a zero burning policy, forested land is regularly cleared through illegal burning to make way for new plantations.

Yuyun Indradi, from Greenpeace Indonesia, said forest fires in Riau are a recurring problem and one the government has failed to seriously crack down on.

“Actually to monitor the hotspots is very easy because there is a free platform to monitor the hotspots that the government can use. But it’s a matter of political will and its seriousness to deal with this,” said Indradi.

Indradi said hotspots in Riau were first identified in satellite images this January, but the government failed to take immediate action.

Annual forest fires on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan are becoming increasingly problematic not only for Indonesia, but for its neighbors as well.

Palm oil and timber plantations here are also operated by Malaysia- and Singapore-based companies; Indonesia has been reluctant to take all the blame.

However, last year, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was forced to apologize to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia after they were blanketed by thick haze and smog.

A shift in wind direction, which usually occurs now - at the end of the monsoon season - is likely to see the smog looming again.

After facing nearly $1 billion in financial losses from the haze last year, Singapore has decided to take matters into its own hands, drafting its own bill on transboundary haze.

If passed, the proposed law will allow the government to fine companies responsible for the fires and ensuing haze up to $300,000.

Climate change and sustainability specialist Fitrian Ardiansyah said the proposed law could help tackle the source of the problem.

“If you just catch those that trigger fires on the ground, mostly they are just farmers, or poor contractors or something like that. If you get really companies or whoever is financing them it will be providing good signals to the market as well as to the sector itself that this is a serious issue, and it needs to be addressed seriously by governments involved in the region,” said Ardiansyah.

The bill targets foreign companies as well as those based in Singapore, but it may be difficult to prosecute those outside of the city-state.

Ardiansyah pointed out that the proposed law must also be matched by regional collaboration and strong measures from the Indonesian government.

Indonesia is the only country yet to sign the ASEAN treaty on Transboundary Haze, a legally binding agreement that obligates countries to cooperate on open burning and monitoring prevention efforts.