A police sign tells people to keep out of fire-ravaged area in Central Kalimantan in this 2015 file photo. (Photo supplied by Divine Word Father Frans Sani Lake)
The Indonesian government has pledged to raise its efforts to reduce annual choking haze caused by forest fires and crop burning that blanket not only large parts of Indonesia but also several other Southeast Asian countries.
Declaring 2018 as a "zero smoke year", Bambang Hendroyono, general secretary of the Environment and Forestry Ministry said the government has come up with a concrete plan to reduce the air pollution.
This involved closer monitoring of peatland areas — especially the activities of farmers — speeding up conservation and forest restoration efforts, wetting arid areas and public awareness campaigns.
"Conservation of peatlands is important to decrease the intensity of forest and peatland fires," said Hendroyono, at a meeting on peatland mangement in Banjar, Central Kalimantan.
Preventing peatland — of which Indonesia has 14.9 million hectares — from catching fire is a key element of the government's plan as it acts as a natural fuel and is very difficult to put out once a fire starts.
According Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, fire has consumed more than 3 million hectares of peatland in the last three years.
"Conservation of peatland is important to decrease intensity of forest and peatlands fires," Hendroyono said.
Father Frans Sani Lake, head of the church-run Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group in the Kalimantan region responded by warning the government that it would take a mammoth effort to significantly reduce fires and that they would remain a big threat, particularly during the dry season.
"Being free from haze is a dream of all people. But, we must be realistic and be prepared," he told ucanews.com.
The priest said the church has urged Catholics — through homilies, catechism, and announcements in churches — to be wary of activities that trigger forest fires.
Sacred Heart Father Ansel Amo, who heads Merauke Archdiocese's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission in Papua, welcomed the government's move.
"All should respond to this, which serves as a reminder for all of us to protect forests and peatlands, particularly during the dry season," he said.
Annisa Rahmawati, Senior Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia said such a commitment to reduce fires must be ongoing.
She said this year there has already been a 20 percent increase on the 2,400 hotspots found last year.
"We hope the government promise is turned into real action," she told ucanews.com.