Jakarta (Reuters) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday (Feb 6) 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 worse by climate change.
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 that total damage and economic losses from the fires amounted to US$5.2 billion (S$7.2 billion).
South-east Asia has suffered for years from smoke caused by the fires, which raised health and environmental concerns and at times diplomatic tensions between neighbours.
"Find a solution, a more permanent one against economy-motivated forest fires because according to reports I have received, 99 per cent of forest fires were started by humans," Mr Joko 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 orang utans.
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.
Mr Joko also noted Australia's bushfires had burnt more than 11 million ha of forests and lands and are estimated to have killed up to one 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.
Mr Joko also ordered more frequent patrols on the ground by security personnel across the country, especially in fire-prone areas 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.