Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesia is intensifying efforts to prevent forest fires that have spread a blanket of smoke across the region and hopes to control the annual haze problem in the next few years, the environment minister said on Monday.
Indonesia’s neighbours have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation companies — some owned by Singaporeans and Malaysians — to clear land for cultivation.
The smoke from the fires, known in the region as haze, affected much of Southeast Asia for months until rains a few weeks ago, an unpleasant reminder of the choking smog that hit the region in 1997-98.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said the government had a three-pronged strategy to contain the fires, which included raising the water level on peat land and confiscation of plantation land responsible for forest fires.
“The strategy is not for dousing the fires but to prevent them from happening. We have concluded that the major areas of these fires are on peat land. That is why the focus of peat areas is very prominent in this strategy,” Witoelar told foreign correspondents.
“Peat fires are different … almost impossible to douse. So that is why we’re trying to raise the water level so that peat areas cannot be readily burnt.
He said Jakarta hoped ro raise water levels at least in part by building dams on cultivated land.
“Hopefully within March or April we will start preventing fires from happening,” Witoeler said.
Indonesia has used large amphibious planes, leased from Russia and operated by Russian pilots, to help douse forest fires which have also been blamed for the death of about 1,000 orangutans during this year’s dry season.
Witoelar said the government was not against new plantations, but would not allow them at the expense of the country’s forests.
“There’s 18.2 million hectares (44.97 million acres) readily available for them to plant without cutting down trees … plantations are welcome but they’re are not welcome to cut down trees,” he said.
“We expect a decrease of 30-40 percent of happenings there” as a result of the measures.
Jakarta says around 90 percent of this year’s fires have been extinguished, but Witoelar said previously he feared they could flare again should dry El Nino conditions intensify.
El Nino is a weather pattern caused by the warming of Pacific waters off South America and can disrupt global weathd floods in parts of South America.