A villager in Ogan Ilir district, South Sumatra, tries to put out a forest fire in the area on Wednesday. President Joko Widodo visited the region on Sunday and threatened stern punishment for those responsible for setting forest fires. (Antara Photo/Nova Wahyudi)

Joko Talks Tough as Forest Fires Blaze Out of Control


SEPTEMBER 06, 2015

Jakarta. President Joko Widodo has called for firm action against individuals and companies responsible for the forest fires burning out of control in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The haze generated by the fires has forced the closures of schools and airports in both regions, and sent air pollution indexes to hazardous levels.

“I already gave the order to the forestry minister: take firm action against the perpetrators,” Joko told reporters at Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma air base on Sunday, just before taking off for South Sumatra to survey the situation firsthand.

“If we let them be, the fires will continue. We must put an end to these wrong practices… I want no more forest fires next year,” Joko said.

He later blamed “disobedient” plantation companies for setting the fires to clear land for planting, saying he had asked the Environment and Forestry Ministry to revoke the operating permits of companies found guilty of setting such fires igniting fires, and the police to impose criminal charges against them.

“I've already ordered the National Police chief to take firm action, to mete out the harshest punishment for companies that fail to obey [a prohibition in slash-and-burn forest clearing],” the president said after his arrival in South Sumatra later in the afternoon, where he inspected a once-forested area that had been razed by fire outside a village in Ogan Komering Ilir district.

Environmental activists also have also pointed to plantation companies’ slash-and-burn methods for most of the fires, although these companies have in turn blamed the smallholders often operating within or on the borders of their concessions.

Joko said forest fires and the haze they generated in Sumatra and Kalimantan over “the past few years” had caused an estimated Rp 50 trillion ($3.5 billion) in economic losses, while triggering protests from Singapore and Malaysia, where the haze routinely blots the sky and poses a serious public health threat.

“So let’s do all we can to immediately put an end to forest fires. All must take action and coordinate,” the president said, extending the call to the public, local governments, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), the Environment and Forestry Ministry, and the police and military.

This is not the first time Joko has made such a call, nor is he the first Indonesian president to do so. His predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also threatened perpetrators with heavy punishment every time forest fires flared up during the dry season, and in 2013 issued an unprecedented apology for haze that sent air pollution indexes in Singapore and Malaysia to record levels.

The calls have proven fruitless so far, though, with forestry officials seemingly looking the other way as plantation companies and smallholders continue to torch what little forest cover remains, particularly in Sumatra.