Bracing for the big smoke

Bracing for the big smoke

Court ruling increases urgency of the challenge for Indonesian government to come to grips with annual forest fires.

Indonesia is bracing for the possibility of more regional embarrassment and condemnation as authorities battle to extinguish forest fires in more than a thousand hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Haze drifting from Indonesia into Malaysia and Singapore -- and often beyond to southern Thailand -- is a major threat to public health and safety. Yet it is almost an annual occurrence despite years of talk and pledges by Jakarta to enforce the law. However, a recent court ruling could help to create a sense or urgency that has been lacking in the past.

In late July, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling which declared President Joko Widodo and his cabinet ministers and regional administrators liable for the raging fires in 2015 that polluted the air of neighbouring countries with thick smoke.

The burning season has started up again, and all eyes are on President Widodo, who will soon be sworn in for a second five-year term.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) reported that its satellite imaging from late July to early August detected thousands of hotspots across Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, but most were concentrated in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia.

The report came just as Mr Widodo was preparing to depart for a state visit in Malaysia and to attend Singapore's National Day celebrations on Aug 9. He responded by threatening to sack local military and police officials if they failed to curb the spread of fires in their areas.

Data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) showed that as of Aug 15, there were 1,092 hotspots across Indonesia. Many are concentrated in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra provinces of Sumatra with the potential to blow into Singapore and Malaysia if the fires continue. Also of concern are blazes in South, Central and West Kalimantan provinces. West Kalimantan borders the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo.

"We have been engulfed by haze from the forest fires burning on peat lands about five to ten kilometres away on the outskirts of the city for the past six weeks, and the last two weeks have been the worst," Anthony Sinaga, an entrepreneur and resident of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, told Asia Focus.

Palangkaraya is said to be a candidate for Indonesia's new capital, as the president presses ahead with a plan to move the seat of government from overcrowded Jakarta.

The smoke is usually thick in the morning and dissipates at noon, only to return again by sundown, said Mr Sinaga.

"The start of the kindergarten and elementary school day has been delayed an hour in the morning to prevent the children from being exposed to the thick morning haze," said Mr Sinaga.

"We detected that the haze reached Sarawak on Aug 13," BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo said in a daily update on the crisis.

The agency has stepped up its efforts by using helicopters to water-bomb the hotspots, many of which are difficult to reach by land.

"We now have 28 choppers to water-bomb and eight others that we use to patrol, with 9,072 ground staff in all locations, with the dry season estimated to last until October," Mr Wibowo said.

On Aug 14, authorities detected 49 high-risk hotspots in South Sumatra. Four helicopters flew 36 water-bombing missions to subdue the flames so that ground staff could go in.

Edro Almusti, who works at a rental car company in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau, told Asia Focus that visibility was only about 10 metres in the morning when the haze is at its thickest.

"We are seeing more and more people having respiratory problems, especially the children," he said.

Local residents were forced to wear face masks when they performed the outdoor Eid Al-Adha prayers on Aug 11.

Greenpeace forest campaigner Arie Rompas told Asia Focus that the likely repeat of the 2015 haze disaster underlined the urgency for the government to abide by the court ruling.

The government, however, says it plans to file a petition to review the ruling.

The court ruling would require the president and his administration to publicly announce areas affected by fires, disclose the names of companies holding forest concessions in the areas, and to build a hospital in Central Kalimantan where people who suffered respiratory diseases caused by the 2015 fires could receive free treatment. Existing hospitals would also have to provide free treatment for those whose health was affected by the 2015 haze.

The court also ordered the Widodo administration to take firm administrative action against parties or companies whose concession areas were burned and prosecute them.

"Every year, we see a new generation of Indonesian children exposed to forest fires and the haze, while palm oil and pulp companies continue to dodge the lax enforcement of the law and poor transparency, which enable them to continue clearing the forest and burn peat lands," said Mr Rompas, who is one of the seven people who filed a citizens' lawsuit against the government.

Nur Hidayati, executive director of the environmental group Wahana Lingkungan Hidup or Walhi, said that if the president is serious about stopping fires and improving forest governance, he should be willing to accept the ruling.

"Admitting past mistakes is the only way forward to ensure protection of citizens' health and their future," she said.

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