Indonesia faces a monumental challenge in resolving the decades-old haze crisis but with President Joko Widodo, there is hope, said his chief of staff Teten Masduki.
The Joko administration has already done more than any previous administration, in terms of how it has responded to the current state of emergency, he added.
However, Mr Teten said he is aware the problem is more pressing this time because Indonesia is not just fighting fires in its own backyard but also going up against Mother Nature, with the vast archipelago experiencing an extended dry spell.
"If you compare with 2014, it is certainly more difficult for our government to solve this problem, and a lot of it is due to the weather and the impact of El Nino," said Mr Teten. El Nino refers to the climate phenomenon that causes a warming trend conducive to burning.
Speaking to The Sunday Times at his office in the Bina Graha presidential complex in Jakarta on Friday, Mr Teten outlined the President's three-pronged approach to deal with the haze.
The first was to deploy thousands of troops to support the Environment and Forestry Ministry's early response to get the flames under control. These measures include water bombing and cloud seeding - which creates artificial rain to douse the fires - as well as building canals to make it easier for landowners to "re-wet" gambut or dry peatland, which burns easily.
Next was the unprecedented step of openly going after those who practise outlawed slash-and-burn techniques to clear land, to cultivate crops like oil palm.
"We know very well that forest fires are an economic crime," said Mr Teten. "They burn the forest to cut the cost for land clearing, mostly at oil palm plantations. So, the President gave a very firm direction to the chief of police to implement the harshest sanctions against not just persons but also companies that are involved in the burning."
Hundreds of suspects have been arrested, and investigations into several plantation firms suspected of starting illegal forest fires have begun. Firms and landowners found guilty could have their business licences revoked and may also be subjected to criminal prosecution.
Another move was to restrict errant landowners from using the land for other businesses, trade or as collateral for loans, said Mr Teten.
No other president has put in place such economic disincentives to prevent future incidents of burning. "So I think this message is very strong," he added.
Mr Teten was made Chief of Presidential Staff just a month ago. The former anti-graft activist is a close aide of Mr Joko. He took over from another Joko insider, Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, who was appointed Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs as part of a recent Cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Teten said he was given the task of coordinating Indonesia's efforts to deal with the haze by Mr Joko. "My duty is to control and make sure that our Posko, or haze task force, is working, and to coordinate their efforts with the other ministries under Pak Luhut."
The transboundary haze crisis this year has sent air pollution levels soaring, affecting millions across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Some observers remain sceptical about whether Mr Joko is able to fix such a longstanding issue. But others, like Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay, said it is clear the haze crisis is a priority for Mr Joko, who has said it may take up to three years to solve the problem.
Professor Tay said Mr Joko is fighting the fires, and has also pledged to prosecute the firms behind the fires. "If these efforts proceed efficiently and effectively, it will be something not seen before," he said. "The fires and haze are, first and foremost, an economic loss to Indonesia, and most hazardous to its citizens. This is now recognised by the Jokowi government."
Dr Nirarta Samadhi, from the World Resources Institute, said the public should not expect the issue to be entirely solved in three years. "It is too complex for that but, with a concerted effort on transparency and prevention, we could, hopefully, eliminate these extreme public health crises in the coming fire seasons."
This article was first published on October 04, 2015.
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