Jakarta pledge to stop the haze ‘is just lip service’

THE BIG HAZE

INDONESIAN environmentalists and non-governmental organisations say that Jakarta’s pledge to stop the haze from returning is mere “lip service”.

“These are just empty promises from ministers who made similar statements in 1994. What we need is real commitment from them to see the matter through,” said Mr Edi Cahyono of the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (Infid).

Commenting on the pledges made by seven ministers at a press conference here on Monday, he told The Straits Times that the Indonesian government had made similar promises three years ago when the haze struck, but did little subsequently.

The practice of clearing land by burning would continue, he predicted, unless the government showed the political will to crack down on forestry and plantation firms that engaged in such activity.

He noted that Jakarta had taken the first step in this direction by revoking the timber utilisation licences of 29 firms, but it had to ensure that these companies did not sub-contract their projects to other businesses.

Indeed, most observers here felt that the test of the government’s resolve to lick the haze once and for all would be its willingness to crack down on these firms even if they had political connections.

While Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja has made clear that big businesses could not count on links to escape punishment, some are sceptical that the government would maintain this position.

Mr Mulya Lubis, a prominent Indonesian lawyer and member of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, noted that the domestic and international community would expect the government to punish the firms without discrimination.

“If it fails to apply rules fairly, then it is just shooting itself in the foot because the problem will come back,” he said.

Ms Emmy Hafild, head of the Indonesian Environment Forum (Walhi), questioned whether the government would keep to its word, given that it made a similar pledge in 1994 to ban land clearing by fire and crack the whip on errant firms.

“Are we to expect them to be any different now?” she asked.

Ms Hafild, who has been outspoken in criticising the government’s handling of forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, said that the only progress Jakarta had made so far was to name the 176 forestry and plantation firms it suspected of land clearing by burning.

But she said there was concern that the government would be “hard-pressed to maintain its momentum” now, given the currency crisis.

“We were much better-off financially three years ago, but we did nothing. I doubt that in a financial slump we can do any better,” she said.

Mr Cahyono said that the one solution was to get funds and expertise from other countries to put out the fires now.

In the longer-term, the government could obtain their advice and implement “fail-proof” measures to prevent a repeat of another environmental catastrophe.

He noted that one area that needed improvement, among others, was the co-ordination among the various government agencies, including the Environment, Forestry and Agriculture ministries.

“We get conflicting information and direction from these departments,” he said.

Political observer Amir Santoso said that it was important to give the government “a chance now and accept their pledges and assurances”.

“They are working hard,” he said. “What they need now is help from other countries, not criticism after criticism.”

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