Prevention of Forest Fires a Regional Issue, Minister Says

Prevention of Forest Fires a Regional Issue, Minister Says

23 August 2009

published by The Jakarta Globe

Indonesia — Despite the huge amount of money needed to prevent forest fires from spreading in Indonesia, the government has refrained from asking for financial assistance from other countries, State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar said on Saturday.

On Aug. 18, ministers and senior officials from Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia held a one-day conference in Singapore to discuss joint efforts in handling forest fires in the region, particularly those in Indonesia. The region is expected to be hit by a prolonged drought brought about by El Nino, a climate phenomena that is expected to start in December.

“We will be grateful if there are offers [from other countries] to help us finance efforts to prevent forest fires. However, we won’t ask for money from other countries in order to deal with this issue. We weren’t [at the meeting] to beg for money,” Rachmat said, adding that the other countries had offered help without elaborating on the form of the aid.

Rachmat said the meeting had produced some outlines about how to prevent forest fires from spreading and how to deal with the current fires. “In principle, all countries agreed that the problems are a collective issue, which means one country cannot deal with the problem single-handedly. [The five countries] have to join together to battle the forest fires,” he said.

“There were also no protests against Indonesia [concerning its forest fires and haze] at the meeting because each country has the same issues, except Singapore.” He said that Indonesia’s forest fires are difficult to put out because most of them started in peatland forests, which were more flammable. Forest fires in Riau and several provinces in Kalimantan have spread rapidly, forcing provincial authorities to suspend airport operations. The resultant smoke has spread to neighboring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

The meeting, however, was heavily criticized by local media because all five countries involved have weak track records in combating fires and the widespread haze, despite the fact that they have all agreed to ban the use of open burning methods to clear land and to suspend permits for burning in fire-prone areas.

Meanwhile, Bustar Maistar, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace, said Indonesia did not need help from other countries to deal with the fires as long as there was a strong commitment from the government to upholds regulations already put in place. “Indonesia can solve this issue by itself if the government strictly enforces the use of fires to open up land for plantations, stops burning in peatlands and applies a moratorium on forest clearing,” Bustar said.

He said agreements on combatting forest fires have already been ratified by countries in the region, however, Indonesia must play a key role. “Because most of the fires are in Indonesia, the new administration must stay committed to all of the agreements it has made in the past,” he said.

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