Indonesian VP: Excuse our haze, blame the wind

Tarra Quismundo Philippine Daily Inquirer 20 Nov 15;

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla blamed the wind for the dangerous haze reaching Singapore and Malaysia, and even parts of Thailand and the Philippines, due to his country’s forest fire smoke.

“One thing that we cannot control, it’s the wind. I’m so sorry Malaysia and Singapore to say that, because we cannot control the wind,” said Kalla when the issue was raised during a dialogue with business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting in Manila.

Kalla is participating in the Apec leaders summit in Manila in place of Indonesia President Joko Widodo.

“We don’t want the haze going everywhere, but the wind we cannot control. That’s why if [the haze] comes to others, it happens not because we want to make the haze go to our neighbor, [but] because the wind does that,” said the official, drawing some laughter from the audience during a dialogue with Apec business leaders.

The haze, which comes from lingering forest fires in Indonesia’s Riau province in East Sumatra and parts of South Sumatra and Kalimantan, and has sparked diplomatic and business rows. During one bad episode recently, Singapore closed its schools to protect children from respiratory diseases. Flights were grounded and events canceled. The city-state threatened to sue Indonesia for its failure to stop slash-and-burn (“kaingin”) practices used for clearing land for new plantations.

Last month, the haze even affected parts of Cebu and was even suspected to have reached Metro Manila. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration warned that the haze could become among “the worst ever,” aggravated by the El Niño weather phenomenon which is causing drought in parts of Southeast Asia.

Kalla, in his response, likewise cited the El Niño weather phenomenon as another factor beyond the government’s control that was exacerbating the problem.

He also blamed foreign companies for their own role in the denudation of Indonesia’s forests. He recalled how Indonesia’s forest land, one of the biggest in the world, became denuded “because of foreign intervention in the first place,” with swift deforestation eating up what used to be at least 150 million hectares of forest land in the 1950s. Nearly half had been lost in the last five decades, he said.

“In the ’60s and the ’70s, many foreign companies taught our people how to log. So that destroyed our forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra,” said Kalla.

He called on other nations to support Indonesia’s efforts toward reforestation, saying his country’s forest land is the land of the world.

“This year, we have a big project to restore all forests. We need international cooperation because this tropical forest in Indonesia is the land of the world. This is our land. Not just Indonesia’s. But the world included,” Kalla said.

He expressed hopes that the climate conference in Paris in early December would yield more concrete commitments to delay the disastrous effects of global warming.

“That’s why we hope that the Paris conference [on the climate] will have better results. We should have togetherness to make a good environment for the world,” Kalla said.

“Next year, the haze might be still there, but we’ll be reducing this. And thank you for the cooperation in the region. We cannot do it alone with an El Niño like this,” he said.

Environmentalists blame palm oil plantation owners and farmers for intentionally using illegal slash-and-burn practices and the Indonesian government’s inability to impose strict penalties to stop the practice. The ensuing haze has pushed pollution in some areas to hazardous levels. At least six provinces in Indonesia have been declared in a state of emergency due to the toxic fumes. Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Japan have sent assistance to help put out the fires.

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