President Joko Widodo, center, seen with Armed Forces (TNI) Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, left, and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, inspecting the site of a wildfire in Riau in October last year. (Antara Photo/F.B. Anggoro)

Erik Meijaard: Beware the Burning Beard

BY :ERIK MEIJAARD

JANUARY 26, 2016

In a world where everything has to be sensationalized, the media in Indonesia have had a field day. The recent terror attack in Jakarta was a great opportunity for reporters to get out their flak jackets, bullet proof vests and war helmets and report from Jakarta’s streets like they were in the middle of a civil war.

Actually quite strange, if you think about it. Terrorists want attention and fear, and, despite the hundreds of thousands “#kamitidaktakut” (we are not afraid) tweets that’s pretty much what they got — loads of attention and a good deal of fear.

Nevertheless, it seems that despite the attention wave, most Indonesians have decided to ignore the terrorist threat, “been there – done that.” Someone told me it was all just "kebakaran jenggot," -- literally "beard on fire." That is, a brief moment of panic and confusion, and after that everything goes back to normal.

There is something to be said about not worrying too much about terrorism and to leave it to Densus 88 and other institutions. After all, Indonesians face bigger threats to their lives. In 2013, for example, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 road fatalities in Indonesia. And Indonesia is apparently the unfortunate world leader in deaths by stroke. Still, these are all threats that the media pretty much ignores. They are probably not quite spectacular enough.

Talking about burning beards, Indonesia’s 2015 forest fires were another threat that the international media managed to largely disregard. Even though it was declared the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century, Indonesia’s fires and the resulting haze in Southeast Asia only sporadically made it into the global headlines.

But it looks like the media will get another chance, because the fire problem is unlikely to be solved for good. The 2015-16 El Niño has already been declared the most severe ever, and 2015 was the hottest year since people started to measure temperature. So, things are nice, warm and dry.

Past severe El Niños like those in 1982-83 and 1997-98 all initially had a long drought with associated fires, approximately until November of the first year, then a brief few months of wetter conditions, and then a return to drought conditions from about March in the second year. If the past guides the future, Indonesia is now heading into the second drought phase of the 2015-16 El Niño.

Whether or not the government recognizes the risk of another fire event is, however, unclear. In a recent government meeting about the fires, the consensus from the state weather agency BMKG seems to have been that it is now raining a lot in Indonesia, and therefore there is not too much to worry about. This is slightly alarming, because the same BMKG was accused by Luhut Panjaitan, the coordinating minister overseeing the government's response to the fire crisis, for not accurately forecasting the severity of the 2015 El Niño in the first place.

How reliable are those weather forecasts anyway? And does it matter? Considering the massive economic, social and environmental damage of the 2015 fires, wouldn’t it make sense to put anti-fire measures in place irrespective of the predicted weather? Because one thing is certain, one day it will be dry again in Indonesia. And people still have matches (if only to light their kretek cigarettes).

As far as I can detect, however, no firm anti-fire action has been taken by the government. I have asked around among colleagues and they tell me that a number of new laws are in development but none have been formalized. Similarly, I have not heard of any major additional budgets being allocated to the most fire-prone provinces and districts for prevention and fighting of fires. Unless my information is wrong, the government is nearly as unprepared for the next drought, fire and haze disaster as it was in 2015.

So, despite President Joko Widodo's commitment to never again have such immense fires, his government doesn’t seem to act effectively enough to prevent the next fire episode. The president tweeted on Jan. 19 (freely translated by myself) that “fire spots are already starting to appear. Now let’s make sure they don’t spread again. We all need to act. Do not let the smoke come again.”

The president apparently gets it. Let’s see if his government and security forces get it too and can act as effectively as they did following the terrorist attack: find the culprits and their associates and get rid of the initial problem, then focus on the factors that created the problem in the first place and address those.

Admittedly, the government tried and lost. One case against a company accused of burning in 2015 was thrown out by the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra. So, more is needed to prevent another fire disaster. Clear laws that apply at all levels of government, without loopholes. Budgets for firefighting and prevention and law enforcement. And a clear message from the government that large-scale land fires will not happen again, and those that cause them will be prosecuted and punished.

From what I understand, kebakaran jenggot has another more subtle meaning, of things happening behind one’s back and causing embarrassment. Let Indonesia’s fire and haze not become another example of burning beards: brief panic, followed by major international condemnation, and then once again silence and business as usual, waiting for the next beard to go on fire.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative.  and

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