Jakarta spells out more measures to halt fires in Sumatra, Kalimantan

INDONESIA, anticipating that the haze problem will worsen in the weeks ahead, yesterday spelt out measures it was taking to prevent more fires in the forest and plantation areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The measures, which range from cloud-seeding operations in “hot spot” areas to the setting up a national coordinating agency for land fires, underscored the seriousness with which the government was tackling the problem, Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said.

“We know that we are at fault basically and we are trying our best to solve this very serious problem,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times.

“Urgent” measures were being taken against a backdrop of worsening climatic conditions in Indonesia, which is also experiencing its worst drought in 50 years.

Giving a rather pessimistic assessment of weather conditions, he said the prolonged dry season had yet to reach its peak and winds were growing stronger.

“This makes for a dangerous combination and, coupled with man-made fires, it could worsen the current fires and lead to more smoke and haze,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”

In view of this, he said the government would start cloud-seeding operations in the Sumatran provinces of Riau and Jambi. Four military planes would be deployed in the next few days for the operation.

But there were no immediate plans for similar efforts in Kalimantan, the site of the worst forest fires, because conditions there were not favourable for cloud-seeding.

“Cloud-seeding is a big help to clearing up the haze but not a long-term solution to the problem of curbing forest and plantation fires,” he said.

The best course of action to prevent fires was to create greater public awareness and to strike hard against companies that were responsible for the fires, he said.

Forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra – and the resulting smoke and haze affecting the region – were the result of land clearing activities by forestry and plantation firms and had destroyed more than 300,000 ha of forest as of July this year, he added.

He disclosed that after President Suharto’s order to ban clearing land by fire last week, three companies in Riau had their licences revoked. Seven others in the province were given warnings for violating the ban.

One of the plantations whose licence was withdrawn accounted for nearly 40 per cent of all land clearing activities in the area.

Environment ministry officials told The Sunday Times that provincial governors affected by fires were expected to meet Mr Suharto on Tuesday to brief him on the latest developments.

Mr Sarwono said the President, who was concerned about the worsening haze conditions, had also instructed him to set up a special agency called the National Coordination Team for Controlling Land Fires.

The government was encouraging plantation and forestry companies to do away with land clearing by fire and resort to new methods.

“Unfortunately, business operators are slow to adapt to land clearing without burning,” he lamented.

Calling on the public and private sectors here to develop a “sense of urgency” on the matter, he said: “Their business-as-usual attitude in the face of an impending crisis irks me.”

But he said attitudes were now changing as they have realised the gravity of the problem.

He added that at the same time, the government was intent on creating greater public awareness of the issue through education and regular press briefings.

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