Forestry Minister Echoes Calls for Strict Action on Haze Issue

Forest fires rage at a sago plantation in Kepau Baru village, Meranti, Riau. (Photo courtesy of Walhi)

By : Jakarta Globe | on 9:25 AM March 18, 2014
Category : News, Crime, Environment

Forest fires rage at a sago plantation in Kepau Baru village, Meranti, Riau..  (Photo courtesy of Walhi) Forest fires rage at a sago plantation in Kepau Baru village, Meranti, Riau. (Photo courtesy of Walhi)

Jakarta. Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan said on Monday that he agreed with National Police chief Gen. Sutarman and Indonesian Military chief Gen. Moeldoko who over the weekend suggested that those involved in forest fires should be gunned down.

“The instructions by the National Police chief and the chief of the military that those found burning forests should be shot on the spot are very strict. If they [suspects] resist arrest, just shoot them,” Zulkifli told reporters on Monday.

He added that aside from the actual perpetrators, those behind the illegal acts should also receive similar punishment.

“It is unfair that people are suffering, finding it difficult to breathe, and that hundreds of billions of rupiah of the state budget have been drained while business owners enjoy and watch us as we try to put out the fires.”

Zulkifli said the burning of the forests had been carried out by people looking to open up new lands for oil palm plantations, adding that he had received information that Riau has seen an additional 1 million hectares of illegal plantations in recent times.

“When the haze is over, the government will be investigating this further,” he said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who arrived in Riau over the weekend, called for an evaluation on Monday on the punishment and penalties handed to perpetrators.

“The president is addressing the need for firm, indiscriminate action. The light punishment of perpetrators of the forest burning should be re-evaluated,” a statement on the president’s official Twitter account @SBYudhoyono read. “This crime cannot be taken lightly because it has a great impact and it causes people to suffer.”

During an assembly in Riau on Monday morning, Yudhoyono emphasized that his short-term plan was to put out the fires, while his mid- to long-term plans were to stop the issues of forest fires and haze completely.

As the first phase of these efforts, the president said he had instructed a three-week operation involving police and the military to put out the fires.

“We have to create a deterrent for those who have been causing this humanitarian disaster, which has interfered with the lives of people as well as transportation systems, closed down schools and caused other sorts of disruptions,” he said.

The president said the second phase would be prevention, set to be carried out from April through September, which is hoped to stop a similar disaster in the future.

“There are five months. Why September? Because this will be the end of my term as a leader of this nation. I want us to do as much as we can and not burden the new president,” Yudhoyono said.

In this phase, the government will seek to look into illegal plantations and stop practices of illegal logging.

“We have to have a system and a fixed procedure for a field operation that includes prevention as well as early actions to the fires,” he said. “We have to provide protection to the people. There are many innocent people who have suffered, we have to protect them, and help stop the fires. Clean the plantations without having to burn.”

Poor spatial planning

Natsir Mansyur, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, said on Monday that the annual haze issue was as a result of poor spatial planning in the country, which stems from poor coordination between related ministries, mainly involving the economy ministry.

“I am questioning the performance of Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa. Hatta, apparently, is only concentrating on mining issues while he seems to ignore matters related to spatial planning,” Natsir said.

He added that Riau has continued to suffer from heavy haze over the years due to the many new companies that have cleared more land.

“Land is being cleared because there is no spatial planning” he said. “Companies that are found guilty of violating spatial planning should have their licenses revoked.”

Viator Butar-Butar, deputy chairman for economy and international partnership with the Riau branch of the Indonesian chamber of commerce, said the forest fires and haze in the region has resulted in economic losses of more than Rp 10 trillion ($885 million).

“Such losses have resulted from a decline in businesses productivity and the disruption of goods and services due to delays in land, air and sea transportation because of the haze,” Viator said.

He added that fish prices in the region have increased from Rp 20,000 to Rp 30,000 per kilogram as the haze hampered the work of local fishermen.

A report by Antaranews.com says forest fires in Riau have consistently occurred over the past 17 years without any serious preventative action by law enforcement.

According to the Riau branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), law enforcement agencies in the region have so far focused on arresting members of local communities, without going after entities behind the fires, such as corporations.

“Every year, only the individuals on ground level are prosecuted. On March 14, the Riau district police arrested 44 people accused of starting of forest fires, and only one of them was from a company active on Meranti Island,” he said.

Meanwhile in 2013, of eight companies alleged to have been behind the forest fires, only one, Adei Plantations, had been brought to the court.

Riau Governor Annas Maamun claims he has repeatedly called on the police and the local judiciary to ensure corporations involved in the fires were also taken to task, saying that he had even asked for the perpetrators to receive sanctions similar to those guilty of corruption.

“Because the act of burning forests causes equal harm to the state, the result of which can be felt by the people, especially the 6 million living in Riau. As the Riau provincial government, we are serious about handling this haze disaster,” he said, as quoted by Antaranews.com.

Meanwhile, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said on Monday that the haze in Riau has started to recede following rain in the area.

BNPB spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a statement in Pekanbaru on Monday that rain with medium intensity had started to fall in Riau on Sunday, which helped reduced the haze.

He also said that the air-pollution index in the area has shown better air quality in almost all locations except for the Libo area, where pollution levels remained at 401 psi (pollutant standard index).

In Pekanbaru, pollution levels were reported to be at 119 psi.

Several commercial flights by Garuda Indonesia and low-cost carrier Lion Air have also resumed.

“Garuda is anticipating that its flight services may be resumed. It has therefore implemented a policy that could see flights canceled 24 hours before scheduled. If the weather is good today, the next day we will operate,” Irawan Suryadi, the station manager for Garuda in Pekanbaru said, as quoted by Antaranes.com.

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