Jakarta has done ‘too little, too late’


Indonesian Environment Minister lashes out at govt over handling of fires.

ENVIRONMENT Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja has lambasted fellow ministers and government officials for not doing enough to tackle the worsening haze from forest and land fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

He told The Straits Times yesterday that complaints over problems caused by the fires and smoke often gained “late and passive response” from government agencies.

He attributed the poor co-ordination system among ministries and departments to the “very minimal support” from government and military officials. He declined to name them.

He said that since March this year he had issued warnings to various departments about the possible effects of the drought and forest fires.

“People are waking up too late to this problem. The whole Jakarta elite, including the press, are disgustingly late,” he said.

His comments take place against a background of mounting calls on the government to take action against 175 plantation and forestry companies for violating an indefinite ban on land clearing by fire.

Observers here said that Mr Sarwono and his ministry was “fighting a lone battle” in tackling the fires which have so far destroyed 300,000 ha of forest in Sumatra and Kalimantan and caused thick smoke and haze to envelop neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

He has criticised these firms for continuing to violate the ban. Many had actually stepped up the practice of clearing land by fire in the hope that they could meet their business targets before the government clamps down.

He added that the problem was complicated by collusion between local government officials and businesses.

“This is one of the reasons why the problem has persisted,” he said recently.

The worsening haze has, however, prompted a joint response from neighbouring countries to help Indonesia put out the fires.

The Malaysian government will send 1,210 volunteers to Sumatra and another 210 to Kalimantan to fight the fires. They are expected to arrive today.

Malaysia has also offered three C-130 Hercules planes to take part in cloud-seeding operations.

Mr Sarwono also told The Straits Times that Japan and the United States were also planning to offer planes, fire-fighting technology and geo-positioning satellite systems.

Deputy secretary of the National Disaster Management Co-ordinating Board Hernowo Hadiwonggo said that Thailand had also offered to send two water bomber aircraft.

“Normally, we never ask for assistance, but we will consider it when there are offers,” The Jakarta Post yesterday quoted him as saying. “Our policy is that we don’t ask.”

He said that the haze had prompted four provinces in Kalimantan and Sumatra – the worst hit by forest and land fires – to declare a condition of “first alert”.

“First alert doesn’t mean a state of emergency. It means that the situation in the respective areas is dangerous,” he said, pointing to the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South and West Kalimantan.

Meanwhile, fires are reported to have started in various parts of Central Java.

The Antara national news agency yesterday said that worsening drought conditions and strong winds, coupled with man-made fires, had caused the fires to quickly spread.

Forest fires are also continuing to rage in the Jayawijaya district of Irian Jaya where 251 people have died from famine and drought-related diseases. The thick smoke and haze from the fires have hampered efforts to fly supplies to the area which is facing acute food shortage.

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