Stern law enforcement needed to tackle forest fires

President Widodo also reminded all ministries/institutions, TNI military/police, and related offices that prevention is the best policy.
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - The problem of haze has been getting worse on Sumatra Island, forcing flight delays and temporary school shutdowns, and affecting the publics overall health.

As of Monday morning, a total of 413 hotspots were detected across Sumatra Island. Riau Province had 45 hotspots, Bengkulu had five hotspots, Jambi had 170, Lampung had 31, South Sumatra had 79, West Sumatra had four, Bangka Belitung had 77, and two hotspots were found in Riau Islands.

For the past 18 years, Riau has been affected by the haze arising from forest and plantation fires on an annual basis. Over the last week, visibility in parts of Riau had dropped to between 200 and 800 meters.

Feeling concerned with the environmental disaster and its impact on the publics health, hundreds of students from Riau University in Pekanbaru staged a rally on Monday to express five demands from the government regarding the haze disasters.

Firstly, the government should declare a haze emergency since the haze disaster has affected public health, the field coordinator of the rally, Siti Lestari, noted.

The students also urged the authorities to take legal action against plantation companies found guilty of setting fires that have razed thousands of hectares of forest and plantation areas in Riau Province.

The haze problem has repeatedly occurred due to weak legal enforcement, she pointed out.

The students also emphasized that hospitals must offer free medical services to those affected by the haze, particularly patients suffering from respiratory infections.

"Inhabitants, who become victims of the haze, must not pay for medical services to treat their respiratory infections," she reiterated.

As Riaus inhabitants are still reeling under the impact of the haze, the government must help the victims, the students have demanded.

In fact, the Indragiri Hulu Police detained five persons earlier on Monday for allegedly setting fire to plantation areas that had produced the haze affecting the Riau Province.

"They must take responsibility for their actions, which is making local inhabitants restless," Adjunct Commissioner, Taufik Suwardi, from the Indragiri Hulu police resort, said.

The police will indiscriminately penalize anyone who is found deliberately setting fire to forests or plantation areas, he stated.

"We will impose stern sanctions," he said.

Since January 2015, the Indragiri Hulu police have arrested five farmers for opening farming areas by using fire.

The arrests of the arsonists is in line with an instruction from President Joko Widodo, who has ordered security agencies to take action against companies, which have burnt down the fields that had caused a haze in six provinces.

"I have ordered the national police chief to take the sternest possible action against companies that violate the law," he said while inspecting the forest fires in the Pulau Geronggang village of Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, on Sunday.

President Widodo also reminded all ministries/institutions, TNI military/police, and related offices that prevention is the best policy.

He emphasized that companies violating the law must be held responsible, adding that he had on several earlier occasions cautioned many plantation companies that harsh action will be taken against those found guilty of setting fire to their fields.

The head of state stressed that companies must also be responsible for the areas around their fields.

Furthermore, South Sumatra Governor, Alex Noerdin, is expected to call plantation managers, including those from Ogan Komering Ilir, to address the issue of forest and plantation fires in the province.

The meeting will also discuss the causes of and solution for the fires, the Governor stated on Monday.

The provincial authorities have intensified efforts to put out the fires through land and air operations. Water bombing has been conducted over areas being ravaged by the fires, the Governor stated.

In response to the press questions, the Governor remarked that he would consider the revocation of plantation business permits as necessary action if needed.

However, Noerdin said he would first study whether the authority for doing the same lay in the hands of the Governor or the district heads.

Due to the wildfires, operations at the Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport in Pekanbaru are also nearly paralyzed as the haze has forced a delay in hundreds of flights scheduled since early September.

Haze reduced visibility to 200 meters on Sunday, forcing delays for flights at the airport. At noon, flight schedules were resumed as visibility improved to one thousand meters.

Pekanbaru Airport has also opened a health post for passengers exposed to haze arising from Sumatras forest fires.

"We have readied medicines and masks for outgoing and arriving passengers," the Coordinator for the second-class airport of Pekanbaru, Albert Jefferson, noted.

The health post will continue to operate as long as the haze affects the city, Jefferson noted.

In the meantime, the haze arising from bush fires had reduced visibility in the Pelalawan District, Riau Province, to 50 meters on Monday.

"Pelalawan is the worst affected by haze, with visibility reduced to 50 meters," Sugarin, the head of the Pekanbaru meteorology office, said.

Fires in Lampung Province, which were reportedly intentionally set, have destroyed hundreds of hectares of forest area in the Way Kambas National Park located in East Lampung District.

"Currently, one location in the Section III of the Way Kambas National Park is still on fire," Antonius Febri, the head of the parks Section III, confirmed on Sunday.

He suspected that the fires were deliberately lit by poachers operating in the park.

A team comprising the parks personnel, rangers, and military officials have also been making efforts to put out the fires.

Over 400 hectares of forest area in the parks Section III have been destroyed by the fires since June.

"In Section III of Way Penet, a forest area measuring 400 to 500 hectares was razed by the fires," he pointed out.

The Way Kambas National Park is divided into three sections: Section I in Way Kanan, Section II in Way Bungur, and Section III in Way Penet.

In fact, forest fires have not only hit Sumatra Islands at present, but also Kalimantan and Java Islands, particularly in the Central and South Kalimantan Provinces.

President Joko Widodo has ordered to activate command posts to control and tackle forest fires that trigger haze problems in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

"The President has ordered the opening of four command posts in Kalimantan and four in Sumatra," former Chief of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), Syamsul Maarif, stated on Sept. 4, after attending a limited cabinet meeting led by the President at the State Palace.

Maarif remarked that four measures had to be adopted to deal with the smoke arising from bush fires, include extinguishing the fires as early as possible, ensuring law enforcement, undertaking health efforts, and informing the public to not set fire for land-clearing activities.

President Jokowi also removed Syamsul Maarif and installed Willem Rampangilei as the new BNPB chief on Monday afternoon.

Minister/State Secretary, Pratikno, said Maarif had been relieved of his responsibilities as he had been holding the post for a long time, while Rampangilei was appointed due to his competency and experience.

"It is just a routine rotation and normal because Mr. Maarif has been the BNPB chief for a long time," the minister clarified.(*)

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