Why Joko Widodo can't stop Southeast Asia choking on his country's smoke by simply putting out fires

Joko Widodo's failure to put out the forest fires choking Southeast Asia illustrates the problems of land use and decentralisation in Indonesia

Having promised to extinguish forest fires in Riau in western Indonesia by early October, President Joko Widodo jetted into Sumatra Island for a progress check. The smoke was so thick his plane couldn't land, forcing him back to the capital.

Exacerbated by dry conditions from El Nino, the haze has blown across Southeast Asia, blanketing Singapore, parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and even areas of southern Thailand in a smog that has closed schools and forced some people to flee their homes. In what has become an annual "haze season" ritual, governments are bickering about who is to blame and how to fix things, fearing a hit to tourism and economic activity.

So far, Widodo is following a similar track to his predecessors: Threaten to punish the palm-oil and other plantation companies whose land is ablaze and send soldiers in to help fight the fires.

Last Thursday though, after repeatedly declining offers of help from overseas, he asked Singapore, Russia, Malaysia and Japan for help to put the fires out.

"We have asked for help yesterday and have been assisted by Singapore," Widodo said. "We hope the assistance will accelerate the efforts to put out the forest fires on the peat land, which need very different treatment than regular forest fires," he said.

"We need aircraft that are able to carry 12 to 15 tonnes of waters, not only up to three tonnes."

Indonesia has already deployed 25,840 soldiers, police and fire personnel in six provinces to fight the fires, with 25 aircraft conducting water-bombing and cloud-seeding operations.

But unless he addresses the broader factors behind the burning off, the chances are the haze will keep coming back.

Widodo's manoeuvrability is limited by a decentralised system of government put in place in 2001 in the world's largest archipelago, which has coalesced power around local officials and potentially made it harder to tackle corruption on the ground.

Widodo inspects the aftermath of a recent forest fire during a visit to Banjarbaru, south Kalimantan province. Photo: Reuters

There has also been little effort over the years to address a complex system of overlapping land permits, where forest is illegally burned to claim ownership and increase the value to sell for plantations.

"There is no strong control, no strong standards on making decisions at the local level," said Bustar Maitar, head of Indonesian forests for campaign group Greenpeace. "[Widodo] should create strong standards to follow."

Fire hotspots have been burning all year in the tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo, but the government only acted after complaints by neighbour Singapore and as haze in the area surged. The worst of it has been in Indonesia itself: A pollution index at Palangkaraya in central Kalimantan province reached 1,990 late last month, more than five times the level considered "hazardous", and about 125,000 people in the country are suffering haze-linked health issues.

"The government seems to be working slowly in handling this, we have lived three years like this with smoke," said Helda Satriani, a resident of Rumbai in Riau who is nine months pregnant with her first child. "Government, please, take immediate action."

Widodo took office a year ago promising to address bottlenecks in the economy, from building infrastructure to making bureaucracy more efficient.

He came to power with high expectations, given his success in tackling red tape as Jakarta governor. Since then, he has run into roadblocks from vested interests and even his own party, causing unease among investors and helping make the rupiah Asia's second-worst-performing currency this year.

Since his September pledge, Widodo has scaled back expectations, saying in a BBC interview last week it could take three years to see results.

Southeast Asia has some of the oldest continuous rainforest in the world, part of a swathe that once ran from Malaysia to northern Australia.

Much of Sumatra has a thick canopy of trees covering waterlogged peat soil, an early form of coal, which is drained when logged, leaving a vast area of tinder that can explode and smoulder for extended periods.

The fires might be extinguished by next month, the country's disaster agency has said. The blazes are on track to become the worst on record, according to Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Still, "it's ridiculous for Widodo to say this will take three years", said Keith Loveard, head of political risk at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

"What is required is the application of the law in a manner that discourages landowners, small and large, from continuing this practice, in other words tough penalties handed down without exception."

The government devolved power to the regions to prevent the archipelago from breaking apart after the end of dictator Suharto's three-decade rule and the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

Dubbed the Big Bang decentralisation, Indonesia almost doubled the share of government spending to regions and transferred almost two thirds of the central government workforce, according to a 2003 World Bank report.

Recentralising land permits might not be possible, as the country is too big, but establishing a master map with clearer ownership would be a step forward, said Kevin O'Rourke, who wrote .

Widodo said in February he wanted to create a single map for all provinces to prevent overlapping concessions, though there has been no detail since.

"If we can have one map by 2020, that will be very helpful," said Aida Greenbury, the manager for sustainability at Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper. One of its suppliers, Bumi Mekar Hijau, has been named a suspect in causing fires. There were 500 licences held by other companies across the land in its supply chain, and burning could triple the amount that land was worth, she said.

In a country with traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practices, local communities are allowed to burn up to 2 hectares of land per family. Prevention of illegal larger scale burning has been limited, with the government freezing permits for four companies so far.

"Mid-level companies are using a lot of families to burn," said Arief Perkasa, a Jakarta-based manager at TFT, an environmental supply-chain organisation. Cutting forest was 20 times more expensive than burning it, he said.

The financial benefit from the fires could be as much as US$856 a hectare for farming leaders, village heads and land claimants, Herry Purnomo, a forestry scientist for Indonesia's Centre for International Forestry Research, said in a report last month. They get thousands of dollars more from planting palm over the years.

"Many players benefit enormously from fire," Purnomo said. "These players wear multiple hats, [and include] farmers, politicians, businessmen and government officers."

Additional reporting by

Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: President sees his promises go up in smoke