Indonesia has received United States assistance to conduct a fire-fighting exercise and Malaysian aid to organize a course on tackling forest and plantation fires happening in Riau Province in particular.
Forest fires in Indonesia have become an international concern as they release carbon emissions, which could worsen global warming, and haze, which could cross the border to neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.
Amid haze enveloping in Riau Province, the Indonesian Defense Forces (TNI) and the United States Pacific Command (US Pacom) were holding a joint forest fire-fighting exercise at Pasir Putih square, Kampar District, Riau, on Thursday (July 30).
“Despite the haze, the exercise ran well from early morning until 11 am local time,” Lt Col Ayi Supriatna, operational division chief of the Wira Bima district military command, said in Pekanbaru on Thursday
Some 13 personnel of the US Pacom and hundreds of others from the Riau administration and related government institutions joined the forest and plantation fire extinguishing exercise. A number of Singapore and Thai military personnel were also present as observers.
The two-day joint fire extinguishing exercise involved three helicopters and a number of fire trucks. Riau was chosen for the exercise because forest fires, especially in peat land areas often happen in the region.
Prior to the joint exercise, a workshop aimed to share experiences in overcoming forest fires between the Indonesian military and the US Pacom was held in Pekanbaru, on July 27-28, 2009.
Riau Province was covered by thick haze which reduced visibility to one km. Based on the NOAA Satellite 18 monitoring, there were 74 hotspots in Riau, said Rahmat Tauladani of the Sultan Syarif Kasim (SSK) II airport`s meteorological, climatological, and geophysics (BMKG) office, in Pekanbaru on Thursday.
The hotspots were detected in Bengkalis (five hotspots), Siak (three), Pelalawan (33), Indragiri Hulu (22), Indragiri Hilir (eight), and Kuantan Singingi (three). He predicted tht similar fires also occurred in Jambi and South Sumatra.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s news agency Bernama reported from Seri Iskandar on Wednesday (July 28), Riau authorities welcomed the offer by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to cooperate in efforts to fight the haze due to forest and peat soil fires.
Malaysia`s Deputy Minister Joseph Kurup said as part of the cooperation the Riau authorities had sent several of their environmental officers to undergo courses and training about all aspects related to forest fires.
Earlier reports said the situation in Riau had reached a serious level and strong winds now from the southeast to the northeast may bring the haze to Malaysia and Singapore.
Kurup said the ministry would also strive to put up a monitoring and a planned drainage system like in Rokan Hilir, a small district in Riau. That is to handle the burning in Riau which is an area that has much forest fires and is closest to Peninsular Malaysia, he said.
He said besides Riau, several provinces in Indonesia which will be part of the haze fight are Kalimantan Tengah, Aceh and Jambi.
Haze has forced the closure of airports in Pekanbaru and Dumai, Riau Province, several times over the past few months, with haze reducing visibility up to less than 300 meters.
On May 26, 2009, a number of elementary schools were closed due to haze covering Rokan Hilir, Riau Province, as the haze could affect the health of school children.
The haze which has deteriorated the quality of the air in the region, has also affected the health of local people. The Jalan Delima community health center (Puskesmas) at Panam, Tampan sub district, Riau, for instance, received a total of 300 respiratory infection patients in May, and the number increased to about 500 in June.
The dense haze and fog prompted the attention of activists of the Tsu Chi Foundation in Pekanbaru. They went down into the streets distributing masks to passing motorists.
Harsh Punishment Fires have become more frequent and widespread especially on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands due to human-induced changes in the forest ecosystem. During the El Nino of 1982-83, fires burned about 3.7 million hectares of forest degraded by commercial logging and agriculture in Kalimantan.
Scrub, grassland, logged-over forest, and rainforest are often cleared for cash crops like oil palm and rubber. Indonesia`s goal for the year 2000 was to have 5.5 million hectares of oil-palm plantation, double its previous area. The cheapest way to clear new land is to clear-cut the trees followed by burning.
In 1987, another 2 million ha of forest went up in smoke in Kalimantan, East Timor, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Java. In 1991, fires burned more than 50,000 ha of forest. According to ASEAN HazeAction online, the blaze of 1997-1998 which affected Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, was among the most damaging in recorded history. Those countries are members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
More than 9 million hectares of land were burnt, 6.5 million of which were forested areas. The damage was estimated at more than US$ 9 billion in terms of economic, social and environmental losses, including the release of an estimated 1-2 billion tonnes of carbon.
Fires in peat soils have been identified as a major contributor to transboundary haze pollution in the region. 60% of the world?s tropical peatlands are found in Southeast Asia,covering an estimated area of 24 million hectares. Of this, Indonesia has about 70% of the region?s peatlands. The land and forest fires in 1997-1998, 2002 and 2005 in Southeast Asia have destroyed more than 3 million hectares of peatlands.
In June 2002, ASEAN adopted an ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution that entered into force in November 2003.
Substantial progress has been made in implementing this Agreement, including the conduct of simulation exercises; implementation of the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy (APMS); use of zero burning and controlled-burning practices; and more recently the deployment of the Panel of ASEAN Experts on Fire and Haze Assessment and Coordination.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has prepared a new law which could impose harsh punishment to those setting fore fires deliberately.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said in Jambi on July 25, 2009, that his office would not hesitate to arrest and send to prison the perpetrators of forest and land fires after the issuance of a new environment law next September.
He said the new law which would be issued on September 8, 2009 would give the authority to the office of the environment ministry to arrest the perpetrators of forest and land fires in the country.
“The office of the environment ministry has the authority not only to coordinate with security officers but also to arrest directly those who burn forests and bushes,” the minister said.
The environment ministry has so far been considered powerless to prevent or act against activity that triggered forest fires as it had no authority in enforcing the law on the environment.
With the expected new law, the ministry would be able to directly set up police lines around the areas affected by fires and arrest the perpetrator, the minister said.