As haze returns to South East Asia, Indonesia admits it can’t control the problem

A year after Indonesia set up a forest-fire emergency taskforce and with haze covering parts of Asia from southern Thailand to Borneo, the archipelago’s government has admitted it still lacks a coordinated plan to tackle fires during the burning season.

“So far, we don’t have a clear blueprint of how to cope with the problem,” Indonesia’s Forestry Minister Marzuki Usman admitted to reporters. “We will start to prepare it,” he said, adding that his ministry had not received the 140 billion rupiah (US$12 million) budgeted this year to fight fires. However, with haze covering parts of South East Asia many hundreds of miles apart including the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, fears of a return to dangerously low levels of air quality have been reawakened.

In the past, protective masks have had to be worn in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and thousands of residents have already been urged to don masks in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, where visibility is down to 50 metres. The haze has also disrupted flights and forced the closure of schools in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, although the government of the latter has refused to release air pollution index figures for fear of harming the important tourism industry.

The haze – caused when fires are set to clear land – has become a regular problem for Indonesia, and the country’s inability to control the situation has been compounded by a lack of funds, equipment and a centralised body to tackle the outbreaks. June and July are most often the months when provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan – along with neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – are afflicted by the phenomenon, corresponding with the dry season. However this year it is believed that many fires have appeared underground in the peat soil of rainforests, making them more difficult to track by satellite and to put out.

Last year, the Indonesian Forestry and Environment ministries established a special taskforce to investigate the companies suspected of clearing land by setting fire to it, but the team was not given the responsibility of organising fire fighting. Officials acknowledge that only a handful of companies have been investigated seriously and, to date, only one company out of dozens identified in Sumatra will be taken to court, the head of the Emergency Disaster Unit, Antung Dedy said.

Dedy admitted that proving plantations were responsible was difficult despite the use of satellite photographs as the burden of proof lies with investigators who have to show that the fires are on company land and were started deliberately.

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