| JAKARTA, June 18
JAKARTA, June 18 Indonesia's promises to tackle
the upcoming annual "haze" season with a $30 million fund and
limited military equipment have been called into question by
experts anticipating worse pollution levels than last year due
to the El Nino weather pattern.
Indonesia has failed in previous attempts to stop the
regional haze, with last year giving the worst pollution
readings since 1997. Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono was forced in mid-2013 to apologise to
neighbours Singapore and Malaysia, which were blanketed in thick
smog caused by forest fires in Indonesia.
With expectations high that the El Nino dry weather pattern
will hit around the middle of the year, the haze could be worse
than in 2013, conservation experts told Reuters.
"We are talking hundreds of thousands of hectares that will
probably burn and I doubt (the government) will be able to cover
this much of an area," said David Gaveau, a scientist at the
Center for International Forestry Research, a conservation
organisation based in Indonesia.
"We're expecting El Nino and if it comes, we're going to see
much more fires than last year."
The heavy smoke from slash-and-burn clearances often comes
from the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where large forest
concessions are used by pulp and paper and palm oil companies,
some of which are listed in Singapore.
Both palm and pulp and paper companies, which blame
small-holders for the fires, have been criticised by green
groups for not doing enough to stop the haze or the rampant
deforestation and destruction of carbon-rich peatlands in
"Anything to do with fighting the fire as it happens is
fine, but this is not really going to tackle the problem of why
there is a fire in the first place," Gaveau added. "The root
problem is overlapping claims over land ownership."
As a sign of things to come, earlier this year Indonesia's
Riau province off Sumatra island declared a state of emergency
as haze from raging forest fires disrupted flights and marine
navigation and tens of thousands fell sick with respiratory
problems. The airport in the provincial capital closed for more
than three weeks.
To prepare this year, Indonesia has put aside $30 million
and will have 2,500 military personnel on standby, with 15
aeroplanes and helicopters helping with water-bombing,
monitoring and cloud-seeding efforts, Sutopo Nugroho, spokesman
at the Indonesian disaster management agency, told Reuters.
Singapore has also offered assistance in assessing and
putting out forest fires in Indonesia and proposed a law to
punish individuals and companies outside its borders that are
responsible for polluting its air.
With presidential elections due to take place on July 9,
Yudhoyono, who has reached his two-term limit, introduced a
moratorium on forest clearing during his ten years in office and
will be keen to maintain his environmental credentials.
"This year we have prepared the technology and ... local
governments have also been asked to identify and arrest the
perpetrators early," Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare
Agung Laksono told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Dennys Kapa in Jakarta and Rujun Shen
in Singapore; Editing by Nick Macfie)