“Forest Fire and Haze Problems Return: Government Needs to Reform its Approach” by Aninda Dewayanti and Siwage Dharma Negara

2019/77, 20 September 2019
Once more Indonesia and its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia are suffering from haze, stemming from peatland forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands. For Indonesia, this is a problem that repeats annually. This year’s haze may have been the worst since 2015; in this instance, compounded by the extremely dry weather.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has attributed this dire situation to failure on the part of state apparatus and community to implement the necessary mitigation measures. The government has declared an emergency alert status to six out of 18 provinces prone to forest fires, namely in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, and South Kalimantan. This enabled required resources to be deployed to deal with forest and land fires in the respective provinces. To date, around 9,000 personnel from the government and environmental groups as well as private companies have been deployed to combat fires.

With more than 2,900 hot spots widely scattered in six provinces, the team faces a massive challenge to control this man-made disaster. The government has employed various measures to combat the forest fires, including using water-bombing helicopters to extinguish the fire, creating artificial rain, and spraying tons of calcium oxide (CaO) to break the haze particles.

The Ministry of Health has also prepared more than 200 halfway houses to evacuate children and vulnerable groups in affected areas. However, these temporary facilities have not been effectively used by the community. Moreover, the haze has gone beyond the measures that have been put in hand. In Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) has reached a hazardous level of up to 2,000 in the past few days. Though community in Kalimantan and Sumatra are used to the annual haze, their wellbeing this time round has been severely tested. This might worsen over the long term if forest and land burning practices continue unchecked. This is because the haze damages human health. It is made up of fine particles, which can cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, and even systematic failures in internal organs. As of September 2019, the Ministry of Health reported that the haze had caused 16,000 people in Riau to suffer from respiratory problems. A four-month-old baby in Palembang is reported to have died due to the haze. Moreover, schooling has come to a standstill, and children have been forced to stay in evacuation camps. In the long run, the community will suffer as their quality of life declines.

The government traditionally reacted to this environmental crisis by identifying those companies responsible for open burning. So far, at least five companies and 230 people are guilty of causing the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands. The penalty for this is the loss of their operational licenses. This, however, is ineffective to mitigate future forest fires, given weak law enforcement and the lack of political commitment to crack down the big businesses behind the crisis.  Going forward, what is needed is to build a sustainable governance for environmental protection as well as improved forest management practices through better monitoring and coordination among various stakeholders, from regional administrations, the military (TNI), police, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), and communities’ participation.  Without reforming its approach, the government will not be able to mitigate future forest fires.

Ms Aninda Dewayanti is Research Officer with the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Dr Siwage Dharma Negara is Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator at the same programme.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.