Yudhoyono's laudable move to clear the air

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had demonstrated statesmanship in apologising to neighbours for the transboundary haze, wants to clear the air before handing over to his successor.

Fighting the scourge is an uphill task.

Quite apart from systemic obstacles that make this something of a Sisyphean task, Indonesia has to contend with the stubborn denial of ground realities by newsmakers who should know better - like former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, who keeps insisting the fires are a natural disaster, "so there is no need to say sorry".

Creditably, Dr Yudhoyono has urged his countrymen not to "lie among ourselves" and to acknowledge the problem squarely rather than pin the blame on flammable peatland.

There is overwhelming evidence of blatant and persistent land burning that has led to hazardous and highly disruptive levels of haze. That Dr Yudhoyono had to exhort regents and mayors across Riau to use their authority to enforce the law is indicative of the political and bureaucratic malaise that contributes to the human misery.

Perception gaps are admittedly hard to bridge as one man's forest destruction is another's man individual livelihood or collective development. For the poor and unskilled living off the land, harsh economics dictates the choice of how land is cleared. But culpable plantation operators, who are said to account for most of the burning, stretch credibility by passing the buck to sub-contractors.

Even if agreement is possible to ascribe strict liability to land owners for any illegal burning, enforcement would have to contend with a complicated land ownership system as customary rights coexist with documented legal rights.

Change, therefore, would require sustained efforts to overturn existing practices, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

For example, to employ sensible methods of land clearing, farmers will need access to pooled equipment at affordable rates. Others will need support for viable alternative ways of earning a living. Corporations must be rigorously taken to task when hot spots emerge on their land and not be allowed to pass the buck to sub-contractors.

And traders must be vigilant in not dealing with products linked with such rampant forest destruction.

It is not just the protection of Indonesia's tropical forests - the third largest in the world - that is at stake but also the health and well-being of its own people and neighbours. Undoubtedly, sustainable development is akin to a juggling act with many balls aloft in the air.

But one can hardly hope to keep them all in play while blinded by haze. The first priority, therefore, must be to keep out the fires, as the President has rightly urged his countrymen to do.

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