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Indonesia’s ticking environmental bombs

Updated On: Sep 01, 2006

Another deadline has been set for Indonesia to tackle the haze problem. First, it was ten years. Then two years. And now it is going to be September 2 as ordered by President SBY when he visits Singapore, apparently chosen to avoid another round of apologising to its neighbours.  

The discrepancy in the time-frame demonstrates the extent of the country’s ‘political will’ to address an embarrassing problem that has irked its neighbours since 1998. Is Indonesia finally taking tough action against haze?

How can Indonesian authorities be expected to meet the September 2 deadline?

The answer is a combination of cloud seeding, water bombs, and reinforced fire-fighting resources in the hardest hit areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan. These efforts have led Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie to proudly express his confidence that “in a day or two, we will be able to put out all the fires and clear the haze”.

Statistics appears to support Bakrie’s optimism. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed a dramatic drop in the number of hot spots in Riau province from 42 to only four on August 29. 

A more realistic picture is provided by environmental NGOs and local state conservation offices on the ground however, informing an impression that the central government’s current strong ‘political will’ could be misplaced. 

The World Wide Fund for Nature in Pekanbaru argued that fires are still raging in many areas in Riau, Jambi, and South Sumatra provinces inaccessible to fire-fighters, and those areas are also not covered by the cloud-seeding programme.

The head of the Central Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Office (BKSDA), Yohannes Sudharto, also revealed that his team of firefighters was outnumbered by the sheer geographic spread of the fires. The lack of pumping machines to generate water to put out the fires is also a major stumbling block.

Current efforts by the government are short-sighted, as they ignore the underlying political economic problems that would prove to prolong the haze pollution problem indefinitely and at greater economic cost than the current estimate of over Rp 227 billion (about US$25 million) per day (Greenomics Indonesia).

The problem goes beyond the mere individual act of nomadic farmers setting the fires – as accused by senior government officials – but the plantation and logging companies that sanction such burnings with implicit endorsement from the government through the awarding of forest concessions.

Regional administrations may be given the authority to clamp down on the culprits, but most of them are influential politicians and businessmen. An example is how Environment group Walhi has identified a list of 106 logging and plantation firms responsible for the fires, but few have been penalised thus far.

The authorities also face a legal obstacle with the country’s Criminal Code requiring solid evidence such as matches, gasoline and witnesses in order to convict. But according to Walhi, “seeking such evidence is like searching for a needle in a haystack”.

Elsewhere, the country is facing another environmental crisis issue, whose management is appearing to mask the problem as well. 

Toxic mud flowed from an exploratory well managed by Lapindo Brantas Inc. – a company incidentally controlled by the family of Indonesia's Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie – as a result of negligent drilling procedures in Sidoarjo, south of Surabaya, on May 29. The next three months saw 25 square kilometres of land being inundated, with 1,000 people in hospital with breathing difficulties, and more than 11,000 displaced.

Ponds were built to contain the mudflows, but their weak reinforcement has led to breakages. The most recent collapse came about on August 29, inundating the Surabaya-Gempol turnpike once more and causing it to be temporarily closed. The problem is exacerbated by what is described as ‘mud volcanoes’ phenomenon: the mudflow exploded on the night of August 25, shooting mud 40 metres into the air and injuring two people.

Social unrest is growing against the government’s failure to take legal action against the company, on top of Lapindo’s slowness to act, especially in terms of compensation and preventive measures to protect the local residents. 

A coalition of NGOs has appealed to the government to prosecute Lapindo under the nation's environmental laws, but Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro responded that the central government would not "interfere", and the Sidoarjo regency administration expressed a preference to work with Lapindo, rather than take legal action against it, despite the immense social and economic damages incurred thus far.

The current mudflow problem, if still left inadequately treated, will threaten the rail link between Jakarta and Surabaya, the country's busiest port. Worse still, if more ponds break apart and the toxic flows spread further, they will reach the sea and pose a serious threat to the marine ecosystem.

Sources:

No respite from annual haze problem at least for a decade (The Straits Times, 7 August 2006)

Indonesia says forest fires to disappear in two years (Antara, 25 August 2006)

US$70m spent on mud morass, Lapindo says (The Jakarta Post, 29 August 2006)

Lack of equipment, commitment hamper fight against forest fires (The Jakarta Post, 29 August 2006)

Mudflow shows no signs of abating (The Jakarta Post, 30 August 2006)

Haze Problem: Can forest fires be put out? (The Straits Times, 31 August 2006)

Walhi blames 106 firms for causing forest fires (The Jakarta Post, 31 August 2006)