Jakarta, Indonesia — Despite President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordering regents and mayors to curb forest-fire causing haze earlier in April, the blazes have recurred in Sumatra and Kalimantan, producing choking smog, a local health hazard that is also exported to neighboring countries. The Jakarta Post’s Tubagus Arie Rukmantara asked State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar what, if anything, was being done to stop the fires.
Question: What happened to the President’s instruction to regional heads to curb forest fires across the country?
Answer: I guess we haven’t done enough to promote public awareness about the harm forest fires cause. Most of the people who are burning the land are small people, small farmers. They may not be aware that the government has launched a campaign to stop open burning. Most of them are nomadic farmers; they’re the ones who don’t know that we are campaigning to halt the fires.
That’s why we have faced another occurrence of fires and haze. Not because the nomadic farmers are determined to always burn land, but because they have no alternative. Land clearing by burning is seven to 10 times cheaper than using machinery or clearing land manually.
As for the big companies, some of them have signed agreements with the government to stop burning land. Now we have to check whether they are still involved in the recent fires.
That’s why the burning is still widespread.
So how will the government increase farmers’ awareness?
In the near future, the government will give rewards — incentives — to farmers who don’t burn their lands for land-clearing. We plan to give the farmers free seeds and other agricultural products to support their activities. The program will be coordinated by regents and mayors. The government has allocated the money. Don’t some local ordinances or regional administration regulations still allow open burning?
This is a complex issue. We have something called “controlled burning”, but it should be carried out within designated areas and times to allow other farmers to take turns to carry out such burning. Such “controlled burning” would not produce such a huge amount of haze.
Then again, it is the regents, district heads and regional administration leaders that should do their best to monitor such practices because some farmers are misusing their permits.
The farmers should be made to consider the benefits and the costs of burning lands. Setting the fires may not directly harm other people, but when the fires produce choking, noxious haze then many people will be affected.
What else would your ministry do to stop forest fires in the future?
Our newest breakthrough is sealing off burning lands by setting up police line around them.
Why do we do that? Because I’m tired, you’re tired and we’re all tired that land owners or company management always get away (avoid prosecution) by saying that they’re not the ones who lit the flames.
They easily escape sanctions simply by saying “where’s the evidence? Where are the witness?”
In the end we have no case.
Now, all burned lands will be seized. No body can enter, no one can cultivate the soil. That way, it will frustrate the people doing the burning, who usually need only to equip the people working for them with matches and kerosene or gasoline to burn off lands. After that these people profit from the burned lands, by planting new crops, such palm oil.
Why don’t you just revoke the companies’ licenses?
Please understand. I don’t have the authority to revoke companies’ operating licenses. I can only suggest the forestry or agriculture ministry withdraw the licenses of companies we believe have harmed the environment.
My ministry is more about environmental law enforcement. We investigate people or seize their properties whenever we suspect they have committed environmental crimes.
I’m sure this new breakthrough will be an effective deterrent. Whenever we impound land, the owners cannot make use of it or sell it to anyone because the whole area is under siege.
It is widely known that the motive behind open burning is to clear land to start a new plantation. If they cannot cultivate their soil, why would they burn the land?
We have based this policy on the 1997 Environment Law — we’re not only determined to create deterrents but also to seize lands for the sake of investigations.
How is the ASEAN Haze Transboundary Agreement progressing? Why is it taking so long for Indonesia to ratify such an agreement, which would allow us to get support to combat ground and forest fires?
I’m a bit concerned about the fate of this agreement. Especially if a common regional agreement like this is opposed by certain parties just because they want to change its editorial content.
Moreover, since the process is already in the legislature, it’s up to the House commissions’ leaders to push ahead with ratifying it. It’s up to them whether they consider the agreement urgent or not.
I have insisted that it should be ratified soon to allow us to amend it and submit an article about illegal logging into the agreement, which was demanded by some parties here.