Lack of resources and an inadequate sense of urgency mean Indonesia’s regional authorities are simply not up to battling the forest fires blanketing the region in haze, officials and observers say.
The problem stems from a system put in place in 1999 when Indonesia granted its regions a level of autonomy.
Dealing with forest fires was then made the responsibility of the regency, a level of administration lower than a province, although when a fire crosses regency boundaries the province steps in.
The two worst-hit areas are Kalimantan and Sumatra – and there are 43 regencies in Kalimantan’s four provinces and about 37 regencies prone to brush fires in Sumatra.
Jakarta helps alert and inform the regencies of hot spots using satellite images, but will step in only when the problem becomes a national issue or the haze spreads to a neighbouring country.
This system may work in theory, but on the ground it is rife with coordination and resource problems.
Indeed, critics have dismissed the approach as “ineffective” and say Jakarta is “toothless” in enforcing its policies.
Tri Budiarto, head of the Office of Environmental Management Agency in West Kalimantan, said there is a communication problem between Jakarta and the region, with local officials struggling to digest the data from Jakarta.
More importantly, they do not have enough firefighting equipment, said Tri, who coordinates forest firefighting efforts in his province.
Forest and brush fires also normally occur in remote areas far from main roads or water sources, exacerbating the problem.
“My men would go into the field and find out that they are not equipped to reach the fire site or to put it out,” said Tri.
The lack of equipment has been a particular problem when dealing with the peatland fires which contribute to much of the haze.
Putting out a fire on peatland requires the injection of water into the soil to cut out the fire source underground.
But in one village in Central Kalimantan, the firefighting unit has just one water pump and a 100m hose, and gets around on modified three-wheeled motorcycles.
The five-member fire- fighting units set up at village level work on budgets of six million rupiah (US$655) a month, hardly enough to buy fuel and feed their personnel, let alone invest in specialist equipment.
In theory, the central government-controlled forest fire brigade Manggala Agni steps in when an emergency is declared.
But with about 1,500 professional firefighters to cover 22 areas across Kalimantan and Sumatra, there are just not enough people to cover the ground.
Meanwhile, some provinces set aside only 200 million rupiah ($21,838) a year to fight fires, reflecting the low priority the administrations give to the problem.
Making matters worse, governors and regents also still allow smallholders to conduct “controlled burning” as part of the rotational agriculture system.
Because of this, it becomes harder to control the burning of land and forest, whether by small-time farmers or by plantation companies.
Jakarta is currently trying to address at least some of the problems.
Hermono Sigit, assistant deputy for forestry destruction and fires in the Environment Ministry, said the government is working to improve the technology in the regencies and train local officials on managing information provided by Jakarta.
“Right now, it is like they have the map, but they can’t use it to act swiftly on the information,” Hermono said.
He also said the government will provide water pumps to farmers so they can immediately extinguish fires on their land.
But the yearly headache looks unlikely to go away if the general attitude towards the problem at ground level remains that of apathy.
“Unfortunately local people, including their leaders, have grown immune to the problem,” said Tri.
“Six years ago, they screamed and worked together to put the fire out. Now, even when the air quality reaches dangerous levels, they tolerate it.”