Indonesia’s environment minister pledged on Thursday the forest fires that frequently blanket parts of Southeast Asia with choking smoke would disappear in two years. Indonesia has been under pressure from its neighbours to deal with recurring forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo that emit billowing smoke, or haze as it’s known in the region, which deters tourists and causes health problems.
“We are making very, very serious efforts. We will not be able to eradicate the fires completely this year and next year, but in two years they will be gone,” Environment Minister Rachmat Witeolar told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Witoelar said the government would impound land belonging to plantation and timber companies suspected of being cleared by burning and bring their owners to justice. “It’s a desperate measure. They (the companies) may claim that it’s the work of local farmers but they won’t be able to use the land and will not be able to profit from it,” he said.
Police were investigating 20 Indonesian plantation and timber companies suspected of involvement in clearing land using fires, with one company employee detained, he said. “I have told the police to arrest anyone involved and seize the land,” he said. It is illegal to carry out slash-and-burn land clearing in Indonesia, but prosecutions take time and few have stuck. Local sources also point to limited government budgets and difficulty enforcing national policy locally.
The minister’s target of eradicating the fires in two years is more optimistic than some other officials, who see the seasonal fires going on for years. Witoelar said the number of individual fires on Sumatra and Kalimatan this year had declined to around 1,000 from about 3,000 last year over the same period.
He said blaming Indonesia solely for the haze was not fair, since forest fires happened in many other places, including in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo island. “The problems with our fires is that the wind blows from the south-east, thereby affecting neighbouring countries. There’s nothing we can do about the location of the earth,” he said.
The worst smog hit in 1997-98, when drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon led to major Indonesian fires. The smoke spread to Singapore, Malaysia and south Thailand and cost $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.
Some flights were unable to land in Pontianak, the provincial capital of West Kalimantan, on Thursday due to thick smoke from forest fires, state news agency Antara reported. Parts of southern Thailand and western Malaysia have also suffered from the haze recently. Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify the pact.