Indonesia — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yesterday gave a three-week deadline to soldiers and local officials in Riau to extinguish forest fires and haze as he left the province after a three-day visit.
He also ordered them to make sure the problem does not crop up in the next five months until September, a dry period when the annual haze usually occurs.
“I want us to do as much as we can so it does not burden the new president and the administration he will soon lead,” he said at Pekanbaru’s airbase before flying off to Yogyakarta to campaign for his Democratic Party.
Last year, the haze sent pollution levels in Riau as well as neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to record highs, and prompted calls for the central government to do more to tackle it.
Riau must change, the president said in comments carried on the presidential website, as he urged residents to “develop a new culture, a new spirit to build an area free from fires and haze”.
He was speaking to 1,000 disaster, police and armed forces officers helping with the ongoing effort to seed clouds, put out fires and arrest offenders.
During his visit to the province, where pollutant levels had been hazardous for days, Dr Yudhoyono called open burning a “crime against humanity”, and asked residents he met to stop their neighbours if they lit fires.
Though illegal, open burning remains widespread as it is the cheapest way to clear land.
Over the past two days, the stepped up efforts paid off, as rain cleared the skies and no hotspots were detected over Sumatra.
This proved politically handy. On Sunday night, Dr Yudhoyono and three ministers visited a Pekanbaru mall, where residents pressed them for photos.
Dr Yudhoyono said in Pekanbaru that while extreme weather and easily flammable peatland worsened conditions this year, ineffective law enforcement was also responsible.
“We must have a deterrent effect on those who irresponsibly disrupt daily life in the community, paralyse transport and cause severe material losses,” he said.
Police said yesterday that 65 people had been identified as suspects in deliberate burning.
Riau police chief, Brigadier-General Condro Kirono, said they had also formed a special pool of 558 policemen, soldiers and forest rangers to track down those who start fires.