Indonesia launches all-out fight against forest fires

Indonesia launches all-out fight against forest fires

Document photo of haze continued blanket of Melawati Palace, Malaysian Prime Minister office, and Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia. (REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)

Singapore stands ready to work closely with Indonesia..."
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - As haze coming from forest, plantation and peatland fires has affected thousands of lives of people in Sumatra as well as in Malaysia and Singapore, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently instructed all-out measures to fight the blazes raging in Sumatra.

The Indonesian head of state on June 20, 2013, ordered all ministries and relevant institutions to put out the fires within one month at the longest.

A week after giving the order, Yudhoyono reiterated his instruction because the haze continued to blanket parts of Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia,

"Because we have not yet achieved our target to put out the forest fires as expected in one week, I decide to step up the efforts to deal with the haze," the President told a press conference at his Presidential Office in Jakarta, on June 24, 2013.

At Halim Perdanakusuma Air Force base in East Jakarta on June 25, 2013, Yudhoyono personally checked the preparations of a special task force for the accelerated efforts against the severe haze.

The task force is a joint team consisting of among others members of the Indonesian Military (TNI), the National Police, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), the Health Ministry, the Forestry Ministry, and the Social Affairs Ministry.

The president has assigned BNPB Chairman Syamsul Ma`arif to directly coordinate the efforts to put out the fires. The agency has allocated funds amounting to Rp25 billion and reserve funds worth Rp70 billion for those efforts.

The BNPB on June 25 sent 1,400 personnel to Sumatra by seven Hercules airplanes to put out fires in several areas, such as Bengkalis, Dumai, Pelalawan, Rokan Hilir, Siak, Rokan Hulu and Pekanbaru, where more than 200 standard-size hot spots were detected.

The central government has planned to send a total of 2,252 personnel to put out the fires. They comprise 600 officers from the Army, 600 from the Marine, 630 from the Special Forces Corps, 320 from the Police`s Mobile Brigade, and 102 from the BNPB and the forestry ministry. BNPB chief Syamsul Maarif said the government would also appoint 3,049 personnel to join the efforts.

Seven Hercules planes and four helicopters have been deployed to conduct water bombings and cloud seeding to make artificial rains.

To ensure non essential aircraft stay clear over Pekanbaru, Riau Province, which is being shrouded in thick haze, the Indonesian Transportation Ministry issued a Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) on June 25, 2013.

"The Air Transportation Directorate General has issued Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) No. WRRR-80899/13 on Forecast and Raining Maker from June 24 to 30, 2013, from 8 am to 4 pm Western Indonesian Standard Time (WIB)," Bambang S Ervan, a spokesman of the transportation ministry, said.

The NOTAM was issued to help pilots with their job to make cloud seeding needed to induce artificial rains in plantations and peatlands being hit by fires, he said.

The visibility in Pekanbaru was very limited due to haze coming from plantation and peatland fires. In Tampan Sub District, Pekanbaru, the visibility was only 300 meters .

The Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) estimated the government will have to spend US$2 million or Rp20 billion to handle forest fires.

"The money is used to finance activities to extinguish the fires such as artificial rain and water bombing projects," BPPT`s Artificial Rain Project Chief Heru Widodo said in Jakarta on June 24, 2013.

He said BPPT has been conducting artificial rain procedure for several times in Dumai city and Bengkalis district. On June 25, rains fell over Riau and surrounding areas thanks to the cloud seeding procedures. But the haze remained thick because fires were still raging in other areas in Riau.

The Pollutant Standard Index in Dumai reached around 900, which is categorized as dangerous on June 24, 2013.

As many people pointing their fingers at oil palm companies for the fires, the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) also mobilized its members to help address the fires in Riau Province.

"Palm oil companies grouped in GAPKI chapter in Riau have set up firefighting units to tackle forest fires that occur in the region, especially around their estates," GAPKI Secretary General Joko Supriyono said at a press conference on June 25, 2013.

GAPKI sent 26 firefighting units to several districts in the province, namely five units in Rokan Hulu district, nine units in Rokan Hilir district, two units in Indragiri Hulu district, three units in Pelalawan district, three units in Siak district, and four units in Kampar district.

On that occasion, Joko reminded all palm oil companies, particularly those grouped in GAPKI, of the need to always implement environmentally friendly business practices, including in the opening of oil palm plantations.

In running businesses, he urged oil palm companies to always comply with Law No.32 of 2009 on the environment and Law No.18 of 2004 on ban on forest burning by plantation companies.

According to the GAPKI secretary general, all palm oil companies grouped in GAPKI have implemented a "zero burning policy" properly.

Besides the efforts to put out the fires from land and air, Sumatran people have also asked for God`s intervention.

Hundreds of residents of Dumai, Riau Province, held a special prayer for rain, called "Sholat Istisqa" to extinguish the fires on June 25, 2013.

The prayer was initiated by Dumai Mayor Chairul Anwar and led by Lukman Syarif, the chairman of the local chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).

He urged other Muslims particularly civil servants to also hold similar prayers to ask for rains from God.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan said the government would not tolerate companies which set fires deliberately to clear land for plantation.

The Riau authorities has so far arrested ten people in connection with the latest fires that have been raging for the last three weeks.

"One suspect was arrested in the case of forest fires in Bengkalis, named Subari (64). He had burned his two-hectare land but the fire later spread to 30 hectares. The affected villagers later reported him," Head of the Law Enforcement Task Force Senior Commissioner Sofyan said on June 25, 2013.

According to Coordinating Minister for People`s Welfare Agung Laksono in Bali, on June 26, the condition of Sumatra was improving as the fire fighting task force has managed to reduce the number of fire hot spots.

The number of hot spots decreased to less than 10 and the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) dropped to 56 from more than 300 previously, Minister Laksono said.

The minister said he had received information respectively from BNPB Chief Syamsul Maarif and the Indonesian ambassador to Singapore that the condition of the air over Sumatra and Singapore was improving.

Despite the improvement, the task force would remain in Sumatra until August to deal with and monitor the fire problem, he said.

In the next four to five days, the government will deploy a rented helicopter capable of carrying 4,000 liters of water to assist the fire fighting operation in Sumatra, the minister added.

Malaysia and Singapore have complained as their countries have been shrouded in haze coming from Sumatra`s fires.

In response to the neighboring nations` complaints, President Yudhoyono on June 24, 2013, expressed his apology and asked for their understanding. Indonesia is working hard to fight the fires, he stated.

"For what is happening, as the president, I apologize to our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia," Yudhoyono said.

It was not for the first time that President Yudhoyono apologized to the neighboring countries because of the haze problem.

In 2006, when haze from Sumatra`s and Kalimantan`s bush fires blanketed Malaysia, Singapore and partly Thailand, the problem had prompted Yudhoyono to apologize to the governments and peoples of the neighboring countries.

"It is appropriate for me to apologize for the problem although the brush fires are obviously not the result of deliberate action by Indonesia," the President said at a press conference in October 2006.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore "wholeheartedly" accepts Indonesian President Yudhoyono`s recent apology for the haze, and welcomed his promise to spare no efforts in tackling the serious problem.

Lee said that Yudhoyono`s apology in a televised press conference, was gracious. He also reiterated Singapore`s offer of assistance to Indonesia to put out the fires.

"Singapore stands ready to work closely with Indonesia, Malaysia and others in the region to bring to an end the haze-related problems which have plagued our region. We need to put in place a permanent solution to prevent this problem from recurring annually," he said as quoted by the Straits Times.

Malaysia has reportedly also offered its assistance to help fight the fires, but the Indonesian government said it needed no help yet from other countries to fight the fires.

"Until now efforts are still being made using our own resources," Syamsul Maarif said.
(Uu.F001/H-YH)

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