Indonesian president orders permanent solution to forest fires

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday ordered government officials to find a permanent solution to prevent devastating annual forest fires that he understood had been almost entirely started by humans but made worst by climate change.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesia's President Joko Widodo attends an ASEAN leaders summit with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in Bangkok, Thailand November 3, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

Indonesia last year suffered the worst forest blazes in four years when 1.6 million hectares of its forests and peat lands were burned. The World Bank estimated total damage and economic losses from the fires amounted to $5.2 billion.

Southeast Asia has suffered for years from smoke caused by the fires, which raised health and environmental concerns and at times diplomatic tensions between neighbors.

“Find a solution, a more permanent one against economic-motivated forest fires because according to reports I have received, 99% of forest fires were started by humans,” Widodo told a meeting with cabinet ministers and heads of agencies in charge of extinguishing fires.

Indonesian farmers often use fire to clear land during the dry season, but they can rage out of control and produce a choking haze. Palm oil cultivation is often blamed for land clearance in places like Sumatra and Borneo islands.

The Indonesian fires have been blamed for increasing greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation that can endanger wildlife such as orangutans.

Anyone caught using fires to illegally clear land for plantations can face up to 15 years in jail and fines, but green groups claim the laws have been poorly enforced.

Widodo also noted Australia’s bushfires which had burned 11 hectares of forests and lands and are estimated to have killed up to 1 billion native animals.

“Climate change, rising temperatures, we all have felt them. Don’t let (fires) become big during the very hot weather or they will become hard to control,” the president said.

Widodo also ordered more frequent patrols on the ground by security personnel across the country, especially in fire-prone area such as Riau, Jambi, North Sumatra, and South Sumatra provinces.

Last year’s blazes were exacerbated by a mild El Nino weather pattern, which prolonged the dry season. Indonesia’s weather agency says it does not expect a repeat of El Nino this year.

Reporting by Maikel Jefriando; Writing by Tabita Diela; Editing by Gayatri Suroyo and Michael Perry