Indonesian lawmakers want haze declared national disaster

As the government struggles to extinguish rampaging forest fires in the country, lawmakers have called for the haze crisis to be declared a national disaster.

House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto said that haze from Sumatra and Kalimantan had spread to other regions and had caused thousands to suffer health problems and economic hardship.

"Of course, we should pay attention to this proposal [to name the haze a national disaster] because it has affected regions," said Golkar Party politicians at the House of Representatives on Monday.

Edhy Prabowo, head of Commission IV overseeing forestry, agriculture, plantations and fisheries, said that declaring the haze crisis a national disaster would show the government's increased commitment to overcoming the problem since there had been as yet no significant victory in its efforts to extinguish the fires over the past few months.

"[The haze crisis] wouldn't have happened if the government had organised preventive measures," said Edhy, a Gerindra Party politician.

He reminded those concerned that law enforcement would continue in the event of an increased status.

Despite growing concerns surrounding the haze, there were also worries that naming it a national disaster would stop the process of prosecuting fire starters, including companies.

The Environment Forestry Ministry has so far revoked the business licenses of three companies - PT Hutani Sola Lestari in Riau, PT Mega Alam Sentosa in West Kalimantan and PT Dyera Hutan Lestari in Jambi. All have been proven to have caused fires. The ministry has also suspended the licenses of seven companies.

As of Thursday, the National Police have declared 247 entities suspect for causing forest fires, comprising 230 individuals and 17 companies. Seven companies are listed as foreign investment companies.

Sixty-two cases are currently awaiting for trial.

House Deputy Speaker Agus Hermanto of the Democratic Party said that a disaster status would not stop legal prosecutions against perpetrators.

The status, he said, in fact authorised the government to use state budgets to fund the fight against the fires and to aid the recovery of victims.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said there was no urgency to name the haze crisis a national disaster because local administrations were still functioning.

"One of the conditions necessary for declaring an event a national disaster is that the functions of local administrations have stalled. [The administrations] are still working, none of them are paralysed," she said at the House on Monday.

The NasDem Party politician said that she was still assessing the financial and legal impact of announcing such a status.

The ministry's director general of environment and forestry law enforcement Rasio Ridho Sani said the haze was caused by men, and thus did not qualify for the status of disaster.

He said that the status was mostly used for large-scale natural disasters in the country.

"We have tried to implement national-scale efforts to handle the haze crisis. The President [and ministers] directly handle the problem," he said.

Rasio also said that the government would remain firm in prosecuting perpetrators.