Indonesia needs help from neighbours and better law enforcement to tackle choking forest fires

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 1:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 1:10am

The diplomatic blame game that each year accompanies the choking haze from Indonesian fires has for once eased. In its place is a willingness by Jakarta to accept help and go after the people behind the burning of forests to make way for plantations for the palm oil and paper industries. Aircraft from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia have joined firefighting efforts and China, Japan and Russia called on to help. Challenging root causes make it impossible to prevent a return next year, but a combination of coordinated actions, policies and strategies will, over time, clear the skies.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has promised to stamp out the problem in three years. Personally intervening, he has ordered the building of canals and water reserves in fire-prone, peat-rich forests in Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia, under pressure from Singapore and Malaysia, whose economies and health have for the past 18 years been affected by the smoke, in 2014 began taking a series of measures, from finally signing a 12-year-old regional pact on haze prevention to enacting laws and making arrests and levying fines. Singaporean and Malaysian authorities have stepped up pursuit of those it believes are culpable and products by accused firms are being boycotted.

Indonesia's perceived lack of action over the fires and growing nationalism led to frayed relations with neighbours. But Indonesians as much as Singaporeans and Malaysians are suffering, the haze forcing the closure of airports, schools and shops and threatening the health of the young and elderly. The slash-and-burn methods of clearing forests are illegal, but also the most cost-effective. Peat in the soil that is up to seven metres deep makes putting out the blazes difficult, while law enforcers struggle to fight the collusion between officials and plantation firms.

The fires have for too long taken a costly toll. Companies and individuals must not be allowed to profit at public expense. Indonesia has taken welcome steps; it has to further cooperate, implement institutional reforms and strengthen enforcement.