Indonesia sends “firm message” to forest fires culprits

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Agricultural communities in Indonesia are now more aware of the dangers of the slash-and-burn techniques of clearing land, and they are adopting more sustainable ways to manage them, said Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

He was speaking at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta on Monday. The event, organised by the Center for International Forestry Research and co-hosted by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, was attended by 2,000 participants including ministers from across Southeast Asia, chief executive officers, civil society leaders, development experts and the world’s top scientists.

Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, was also present at the two-day event.

“A success story in adopting a pro-environment policy can also be seen in the village of Lonca, Central Sulawesi,” President Yudhoyono said in his speech. “For generations, Lonca villagers practiced slash-and-burn land clearing. For many decades, this was the only method they know. This practice stopped after the introduction of a community based program to manage forest and watershed area.”

Mr Yudhoyono said that one of the green policies of his government was a nationwide program to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

As part of this initiative, he said in 2011, he imposed “a moratorium of new utilisation and conversion licenses to protect more than 63 million hectares of primary forests and peat lands.”

“This is an area larger than the landmass of Malaysia and the Philippines combined. Last year, I extended the policy until 2015. I hope my successor can prolong this moratorium,” he said, referring to his departure from office at the end of his term later this year.

President Yudhoyono
President Yudhoyono

Despite these achievements and initiatives, however, he said there remains “many cases of unsustainable land-use practices.”

“Forests and peat lands of Southeast Asia continue to decline and degrade,” he told the Summit. “In Riau Province, Sumatera, for instance, despite all preventive measures by the provincial stakeholders over the years, forests fires still occur from time to time. I personally witnessed the forest fires there and the devastating effects to the local people and neighbouring provinces.”

These forests fires gave rise to the haze which the president described as “a man-made disaster”. It disrupted the lives and damaged the health of villagers, town-folks and communities.

“The haze paralyzed transportation and communications vital to daily lives and services that businesses depend on. And it prevented children access to schools and education,” Mr Yudhoyono said.

In light of the “dire situation” caused by the fires in Riau, he said his government is dealing with those responsible through “strong law enforcement actions.”

“[Over] a hundred individuals and a dozen corporations are facing court trials for forestry-related crimes,” he said. “Crimes that cause humanitarian and environmental disasters.”

He said the stronger legal enforcement sends a firm message.

“Burning land and forests, logging illegally, and farming on illegal plantations either by individuals or companies will not be tolerated nor left unpunished.”

Preventing environmental degradation such as forest fires and the haze, is also part of Indonesia’s “significant contribution to the global efforts in mitigating climate change”, he said.

“In the case of Indonesia, more than two-thirds of the country’s GHG (Green House Gases) emissions come from deforestation, peat land fires and degradation.”

“What we do today is not for our own benefit,” the president said. “It is more for the billions of people who will inherit our earth.  Therefore, the responsibility is upon us who live today, to protect and save our forests for our children’s children.”

He concluded his speech with a call to citizens, civil society organisations, research centers, think-tanks and academia to strengthen and develop a “partnership to achieve a more sustainable forests management practices”; and for “businesses across the ASEAN region to commit to sustainable land-use and investment practices.”

In his address to the Summit, Dr Balakrishnan noted that the fires in Indonesia, which caused the air pollution index in Singapore to hit record highs last year, have started earlier this year.

Following the “brutal” haze situation in 2013, Dr Balakrishnan had called on the Indonesian government to disclose the names of the companies and businesses responsible for the fires.

However, this has been unsuccessful so far because of the “unwillingness of countries” to share the land use and concession maps which are needed for ASEAN’s haze monitoring system to work.

The system would help to identify responsible parties and the causes of regional haze.

Dr Balakrishan said that while it was “impractical to call for a halt to development”, companies and other stakeholders can operate in a more transparent way.

Dr Balakrishnan said there “is an urgent need for governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local communities to work together and insist on transparency, expedite investigations and prosecute those responsible for forest fires.” (TODAY)

Meanwhile, in Singapore, all households will receive free N95 masks from Tuesday, as part of a 1.2 million emergency preparedness “starter kits”.

This is in anticipation of the return of the haze in the months ahead which the MEWR had warned could be worse than the one last year.

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