Indonesia — Hotspots in forests, plantations and peatland fires, which came early on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands this year, have caused the Indonesian government to intensify law enforcement to deal with the problem.
“Usually haze occurs in May or June. But, this year, the haze has happened in January and February in Riau and West Kalimantan,” the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo stated in Jakarta, recently.
On Saturday morning (Feb 15), the Terra and Aqua Satellite detected 704 hotspots in Sumatra, an increase of almost 100 percent from 357 on the previous day. The largest number was found in Riau Province with 611, drastically up from 53 one day earlier.
The 704 hotspots were spread over six provinces on Sumatra island, including 64 in North Sumatra, 18 in Aceh, four each in Jambi and Bangka Belitung, and three in Riau Islands province, Sanya Gautami, analyst of the Pekanbaru meteorological, climatology and geophysics agency (BMKG) said on Feb. 15.
In Riau province, the 611 hotspots were detected in ten districts and a municipality, including 228 in Bengkalis, 120 in Siak, 77 in Pelalawan, 64 in Meranti, 50 in Indragiri Hilir, 37 in Rokan Hilir, 27 in Dumai, six in Indragiri Hulu, and one each in Rokan Hulu and Kampar district.
On February 11, some 244 hotspots were detected in Riau. The haze produced by fires reduced visibility in parts of the province to 500 meters, while the pollutant standard index reached 400 PSI, which is defined as “hazardous”.
In Dumai city, the latest Pollutant Standard Index reading in the coastal city hit 200 PSI, which is categorized as unhealthy. The Dumai city administration was set to declare the highest level of alert after haze blanketed the city.
The BMKG predicted that over the next one week, the amount of rain will remain low in Riau province and the number of hotspots could potentially increase, Gautami said.
A worsening scenario is anticipated as the BNBP has predicted that the drought this year would be more intense than in 2013, as a possible weak El Nino might develop later this year. In 1982-83 and 1994, the El Nino-induced forest fires destroyed some 6.4 million hectares of forest, especially in East Kalimantan. El Nino usually triggers drought in Indonesia.
On February 11, the BNPB held coordination work with several government agencies and law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem of haze from forest fires and drought this year.
The government will address the forest fire problems through land and aerial operations. The land operation will involve, among others, military officers, police, forest fire brigade units, and civilian security personnel.
The aerial operation will include water bombing from air and weather modification or cloud seeding technologies. The BNBP will rent the Be-200 amphibian plane and the Kamov helicopter from Russia for use in water bombing.
The meeting, chaired by the BNBP chief, Syamsul Maarif, was attended by representatives from the coordinating ministry for peoples welfare, the forestry ministry, the agriculture ministry, the environmental affairs ministry, the home affairs ministry, the Indonesian defense forces (TNI), the national police, and regional disaster mitigation offices from Jambi, South Sumatra, North Sumatra, Riau, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, and East Kalimantan.
Maarif reminded all involved to implement presidential instruction no. 16/2011 on the Forest and Plantation Fires Control Intensification.
He also ordered all law enforcement authorities to enforce the existing laws regarding the environment. “We have produced numerous regulations regarding land forest fires. But they are not enforced. The main key to overcoming forest and land fires is the enforcement of the law,” he said.
The agencys chief emphasized that incident, such as the one in 2013 when Sumatras haze affected Singapore and Malaysia, should not happen this year.
Last year, the Indonesian government declared a state of emergency in the Riau province on June 21 after heavy smog blanketed parts of the Sumatra Island, Singapore, and Malaysia. Singapore urged its citizens to remain indoors amid unprecedented levels of air pollution, while Malaysia closed 200 schools.
The Sumatra fires earlier this year had worried Singapore officials. In a Facebook post recently, referring to the Sumatra fires, Singapores Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan wrote: “We will try to encourage them to take action – but we all know the welfare of close neighbours is not their priority.”
As Maarif said, enforcement of existing laws is a key to deal with the annual fires, as some of them are deliberately set to clear land for plantation and farming areas, despite the fact that such activity is banned by the Indonesian government.
Therefore, Acting Riau Governor Djohermansyah Djohan ordered a thorough investigation into the fires to act as a deterrence for those involved.
“Yesterday, we signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the plantation companies. The MoU is binding on the plantation companies, which must be committed to keep their plantations protected from fires,” he said on Feb. 15.
The governor hailed the Riau police for arresting six people suspected of setting fires to forested land in a number of districts, on Feb 13.
He asked the police to thoroughly investigate the case and not let the scope of the investigation remain limited to just these six suspects.
“The provincial police are investigating the case. We hope that the law enforcement agencies would be able to investigate the case thoroughly,” he said.
Riau Police Chief Inspector General Condro Kirono in Pekanbaru on Feb. 13 said the suspects were charged under Law No. 18 of 2004 on plantations, with a punishment calling for a maximum 10 years imprisonment, and a maximum fine of Rp10 billion.
Those arrested were also charged under Law No. 26 of 2007 on Spatial Planning. In 2013, the Riau Police had apprehended as many as 33 people suspected in the burning of forests.