The extent of the bird flu pandemic and haze pollution have reached a point where all eyes are on Indonesia.
Indonesia earned the undesirable record of having a third of the world’s bird flu fatalities and the world’s highest number of fatalities – 44 in just a year – as compared to Vietnam’s 42 deaths over two and a half years. Three months ago also saw the world's first lab-confirmed human-to-human transmission of bird flu – with the cluster of seven deaths in North Sumatra's Karo district – occurring in the nation and raising the spectre of a flu pandemic at global proportions.
International experts have criticised Indonesia’s approach to tackle the bird flu vis-à-vis Vietnam and Thailand, which have displayed more aggressive tactics and stronger political will. Vietnam for example, launched a nationwide mass poultry vaccination campaign last year, and reaped a clean slate in nearly nine months this year. Thailand, with 16 deaths reported, has in turn marked out disaster zones (including Bangkok) to conduct mass slaughtering in coordination with strong village-based surveillance.
With the recent outbreaks in Bali and Papua, frustration has set in and the blame game is in motion. Critics have alleged that the government is not serious about fighting bird flu with an ineffective culling process brought about by weak governmental coordination and unclear strategy.
The Indonesian state has in turn rebutted such criticisms by citing compensation and monitoring problems. Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie noted (albeit unverified by an independent party) that 29 million birds, including 5.9 million in backyards, had been slaughtered while 262 million had been vaccinated since 2004. Yet problems remain as Mr Rizal Malaranggeng, supervisor for the Karo outbreak team, argued that the compensation of 12,500 rupiah per chicken is insufficient to replace the people’s means of livelihood. Agricultural Minister Anton Apriyadi also said that 30 million households with chickens in their backyards have rendered official monitoring difficult. Hence the case was put forward by the state to account for its perceived slow response.
Aburizal Bakrie also claimed that the government had spent 400 billion rupiah (S$69 million) on publicity for its campaign and on compensating farmers, but had not received ‘a single cent’ from promised overseas aid. On August 8, Vice President Jusuf Kalla was reported to have commented, during an opening ceremony of a coordination meeting with all governors, regents and mayors in Jakarta, that “it's logical if the number of victims is higher in Indonesia than in Vietnam because the country's population is far higher than Vietnam's”.
The same blame-game can be witnessed in Indonesia’s current treatment of the transboundary haze pollution problem.
The Indonesian state rebutted ongoing criticisms of being the key contributor of the haze by citing the role of small-scale subsistence farmers and their entrenched ‘tradition’ of slash-and-burn practices as reasons for slow progress. However, in this case, it is a significant regression from the President’s declaration of war on haze four months ago to an admission that the annual haze problem will persist over the next decade.
Mr Herman Prayitno, a sub-director of forest fire prevention at Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry has argued that small-scale subsistence farmers cannot alter their slash-and-burn practice “overnight” since it has been “practised for many generations”. The problem is then compounded by plantation owners who employ such farmers to do their dirty work and avoid capture.
The state also denied that forest fires on Sumatra and Borneo were responsible for causing a haze that affected Malaysia this week, as a Forestry Ministry representative claimed that the 100 hot spots around the main town of Pekanbaru in Sumatra's Riau province on August 9 were “too spread out to affect neighbouring countries” and that forest fires were also burning on Borneo.
Clearly, the general failure in governance to control the bird flu pandemic and spread of haze pollution can be attributed to problems and struggles related toIndonesia’s ongoing decentralisation reforms, creating overlapping authority and legislations with weak enforcement.
But whilst this is occurring and falls under the familiar guise of excuses the government makes at moments of uncontrollable crises, covering up and blame-pushing should not become part of the game, as these would only compound the problems. More discourses and concrete actions should revolve around issues related to proper dissemination of aid and resources, as well as a closer coordination of intra-regional policies to help countries that have weaker institutional capacities to deal with the problems at hand. Less defensiveness on the part of Indonesian officials and more seriousness in tackling the problems by identifying the weaknesses and targeting aid at capacity building are the only way forward.
While top Indonesian leaders have promised to tackle these problems so they would not become “problems” for its Southeast Asian neighbours, recent remarks and actions by some have cast doubts on whether Indonesia really had a hold on these problems.
Understanding the weakness-pushing on the part of all the parties (international community and afflicted states alike) involved should not become a sufficient stance in the current transboundary state of how environmental pollution and pandemic diseases affect the region.
No respite from annual haze problem at least for a decade (The Straits Times, 7 August 2006)
Haze returns to most parts of the country (The Star, 7 August 2006)
Air quality worsens in Kuala Lumpur (AFP/The Straits Times, 9 August 2006)
Indonesia is worst-hit by bird flu (AP/AFP/The Straits Times, 9 August 2006)
Bird flu virus spreads to Papua (Jakarta Post, 9 August 2006)
Fires not responsible for KL haze: Jakarta (AFP/The Straits Times, 10 August 2006)
Indonesia denies being lax in fight against bird flu (The Straits Times, 10 August 2006)
Resurgence of bird flu in Thailand, Laos raises fears in Asia (AP/Jakarta Post, 10 August 2006)
RI receives no funds for fighting bird flu (AP/Jakarta Post, 10 August 2006)
Bird flu toll climbs to 45 in RI (Jakarta Post, 10 August 2006)