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Indonesia’s ongoing war on haze and mud

Updated On: Feb 27, 2007

On 22 February, Indonesia hosted an international conference on the implementation of Indonesia's action plan to tackle the haze, which saw promising moves byJakarta amid the forecast of extended dry season this year.

The conference was aimed at attracting international donors to contribute to solving the country's haze problem and coming up with input for an ASEAN environment ministers' meeting next week in Brunei Darussalam. Delegates hailed from countries such as Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, and the haze-affected states of SingaporeBrunei and Malaysia.

Indonesia has managed to raise Rp 602 billion (S$100 million) from state budgets through several ministries and local governments, as well donor countries, including the ASEAN states.

According to the Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, "we have to launch a concerted effort to tackle the problem," and that “the support is very crucial because the land and forest fires and transboundary haze issues significantly damage Indonesian environment, its economic and social sector.”

ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong, welcomed Indonesia's plan of action and supported cooperation between the local and central governments and ASEAN countries to tackle the problem. "It's not a question of a lack of resources, it is a question of how you use the resources. People will put in more money if you have a good plan, leadership and commitment to solve the problem. ASEAN countries are prepared to commit resources, they just want to know how it is used," he said.

As Minister Witoelar explained to the conference participants, the funds will be channeled into education, by teaching peasants how to clear land for planting without resorting to the age-old slash-and-burn methods known to be rampant on Kalimantan and Sumatra, such as “how to use agricultural waste as raw material for compost.” “We will give (people) equipment to be able to cut down trees and bushes as well as chemicals to create natural fertilizer out of it," Witoelar added.

Rachmat also promised that the government would not hesitate to punish plantation companies that use slash and burn methods. "I warn the companies not to burn forest because this time we will be much tougher. We will arrest them and bring them to trial," he said.

Elsewhere, the Indonesian Deputy Minister for Natural Resource Conservation and Environmental Control, Masnellyarti Hilman said that anti-haze activities had already begun in the country. "We have conducted campaign programs and distributed equipment directly to farmers while the Agriculture Ministry is giving incentives in the form of free fertilizer to farmers who do not adopt slash and burn," she said. Masnellyarti added that her office and local governments would conduct checks on companies to see if they have the required equipment and facilities to prevent and put down fires. She admitted that "it is not easy to determine whether a particular company committed a crime [but] that's why we will train people at the local universities to be able to identify violations."

The conference participants were also briefed on Singapore's project to help the government fight fires in Jambi province. According to the head of the environment regional office in Jambi, Mr Murjani Ahmad, “Singapore officials came to Jambi last month and we are going to Singapore next month to work on the master plan,” he said. Other project areas sponsored by the Netherlands and Malaysia were also discussed at the conference, and the Indonesian organisers called for more such participation from donor countries and donor agencies in areas like Riau, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan that have yet to see adoption.

An additional prevention/monitoring effort comes from the use of satellites and the establishment of air quality monitoring stations. Minister Witoelar said there will be an early warning system in place to alert Indonesia’s neighours in the event of severe haze.

Finally, the Environment Minister also highlighted the government’s plan to re-vitalise 1.3 million hectares of peatland in Kalimantan – after a failed farming programme in the 1990s – with 93,000 hectares of the 1.3 million hectares to be cultivated, and the rest turned into conservation areas.

Yet, such a plan has met with scepticism, especially from NGOs working in the area. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said that results will be mixed.  While peat fires will be reduced, it will be tough to render the land suitable for rice production. The primary reason, according to WWF Director, Nazir Foead, is that "the investment to turn peat land into productive rice fields will be very high - a lot of input like fertilisers. Also inputs to neutralise the PH  as the peat is very acidic. I doubt that it will work long term - it might work only just for very short term." The massive funding required is not expected to take place soon, and definitely not before the next dry season due in 5 months' time, he added.

Meanwhile, another less silent threat in East Java continues to plague Indonesia. The mudflow woes have caused further infrastructural disruptions with the blockage of a main road and a forced re-routing of a key railway. Hundreds of residents, whose houses have been submerged by the mud, also rallied to voice their anger at the persistent lack of compensation, and which in turn paralyzed one of the main southern entrances to Surabaya and the railway system connecting the provincial capital to other parts of East Java. The protestors were dispersed only after 1,000 police were activated.

The housing complex residents demanded to be given similar compensation (Rp 2.5 million (US$271) per square meter of affected house and land) from Lapindo to victims in four other villages swallowed by the mud. East Java Governor Imam Utomo said in response that "[the government] will bring the case to the President in hopes of getting the best solution for residents,” in spite of Lapindo’s expressed refusal to compensate as the original agreement did not include the current residents.

To curb the mudflow problem, the national response team – established by presidential decree last September with funding from Lapindo – activated a new plan to drop nearly 1,500 concrete balls chained together in groups from a cable held by two cranes, into the the Banjar Panji I well.  However some geologists were skeptical and criticized the soundness of this plan which is said could slow the outflow of the mud by between 50 and 70 percent. The plan also encountered delays when a steel cable hoisting the balls broke. 

Elsewhere, politicking continues to mar the issue. Welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie claimed last month that the flow was a "natural disaster" unrelated to the drilling activities of Lapindo, which belongs to a group controlled by his family. The same conclusion was reached by a recent workshop organised by the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), but critics said the conference invited only scientists who believed the mud geyser was triggered by a natural phenomenon, such as the May 27 earthquake last year, which happened two days before the mud volcano.

A study by British experts has put forward a counter-claim, saying that the eruption was most likely caused by the drilling for gas. Richard Davies, a mud volcano specialist and professor at England's Durham University, said "the chance that the mud erupted because of the drilling activities is 90 percent… the chance of the mud volcano being triggered by an earlier earthquake in Yogyakarta was 1 to 2 percent, while the chance that both the drilling activities and the earthquake played a role was 8 percent.”

Sources:

Peatland project to focus mainly on conservation (The Jakarta Post, 17 February 2007)

Engineers abandon attempt to plug a gushing mud (The Jakarta Post, 19 February 2007)

Jakarta outlines plans to fight yearly haze (The Straits Times, 23 February 2007)

RI plans to launch intensive anti-haze campaign (The Jakarta Post, 23 February 2007)

Indonesia's plan to revitalise peat land to have mixed results (Channel NewsAsia, 23 February 2007)

Mud volcano conclusion disputed (The Jakarta Post, 23 February 2007)

Indonesian "mud volcano" victims block roads, railway (Channel NewsAsia, 24 February 2007)

Sidoarjo roads clear, but anger, bitterness remain (The Jakarta Post, 24 February 2007)