Friday, 7 August 2009

Riau administration powerless to stop forest fires

Adianto P. Simamora , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 08/07/2009 1:56 PM | Headlines

Even though thick haze has forced schools to close and disrupted other daily activities in Riau, the administration seemed powerless to tackle the prolonged forest fires, mainly due to the lack of budget.

Riau forestry agency said the local administration had allocated only Rp 500 million (US$50,000) of budget to deal with repeated forest fires, far lower than the proposed Rp 3 billion.

"What can we do with such money as the forest fires have raged over 30 hectares of peat land area?" head of the forest fire unit at the agency, Said Nurjaya told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

He said the office had proposed an extra Rp 2.5 billion to resolve the expected rising of forest fires with the predicted El Nino phenomena this year.

Riau has been the most severely affected area during the recent forest fires, which caused a three-day closure of the airport in Pekanbaru until Wednesday and sent thousands of students home.

Nurjaya also claimed his office had arrested at least five people for allegedly burning forests.

The WWF Indonesia has detected about 1,608 fire hotspots, including in Riau on Wednesday.

Education agency office in Siak regency decided on Thursday to extend the closure of schools until Saturday due to the thick haze with the visibility level of only 50 meters.

"We have ordered about 84,779 students from elementary, junior high school and senior high school to take the holiday until Saturday," head of the education agency Arfan Usman said.

"But we will evaluate it next week. If haze conditions worsen, we will extend the holiday again."

Indonesian Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban said earlier that the government would only take firm action to control forests if haze disturbed flights and sparked protests in Malaysia and Singapore.

Environmental activists have criticized the government over its slow actions in tackling the forest fires across the country.

Greenpeace, Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi) and AMAN staged a rally in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, where the haze has also blanketed the city and its surround areas, to protest the lack of government's commitment to protecting rainforest and peat land.

Greenpeace earlier has called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to stop forest fires mainly in Riau that was lit deliberately to clear land for the oil palm and paper plantations.

The government, however, claimed that most of the blazed lands were located in the areas belonging to the local people.

"Our team finds that most of the burned areas belong to local people," Masnellyarti Hilman, deputy minister for natural conservation enhancement and environmental destruction control told the Post.

"We will only warn them to avoid such actions."

She said a team from the environmental minister was still investigating whether any company was also involved in the forest fires in Riau.

Indonesian State Minister for Environment Rachmat Witoelar and his Malaysian counterpart Douglas Unggah Embas are scheduled to meet in Riau province to discuss the forest fire in Riau on Saturday.

Environmental Ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam would also meet in Singapore next week to discuss forest fires in anticipation of El Nino.

- Rizal Harahap contributed to this article from Pekanbaru.