Forest fires become burning issue as Indonesia’s election fight heats up

World Economic Forum An officer from the local Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) attempts to extinguish a fire. Forest fires have cost Indonesia

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JAKARTA, Feb 19, 2019, Straits Times. A day after Indonesia’s two presidential candidates went head-to-head on issues ranging from the economy to the environment, campaign managers from both camps exchanged heated arguments on Monday (Feb 18), and one topic that stood out was forest fire mitigation, reported The Straits Times.

The follow-up arguments were seen as their move to pick up leftovers from the televised 90-minute encounter in a Jakarta hotel on Sunday night where both men outlined their competing views.

Incumbent Joko Widodo, 57, popularly known as Jokowi, who is seeking a second and final five-year term in office, faces a sole challenger, 67-year-old former army general Prabowo Subianto, in the next general election on April 17.

Sunday night’s debate – in which candidates tried to sway undecided voters, reported to number more than 10 per cent of the total 190 million registered voters – was the second of five scheduled before the election. The next one will be held on March 17.

A Twitter-survey of more than 52,000 Elshinta radio listeners held after the debate revealed that 64 per cent would support Mr Joko and 34 per cent Mr Prabowo, while 2 per cent were undecided.

Economist Drajad Wibowo, a senior member of Mr Prabowo’s campaign team, accused Mr Joko of making false claims during the debate.

“He said no more forest fires but the facts on the ground clearly refuted that,” he told the popular Elshinta Radio station. “In August 2018, schools in Pontianak, West Kalimantan were temporarily shut due to forest fire.”

Public and private schools in Pontianak were ordered last year by its West Kalimantan provincial government to close for three days from Aug 20 as the provincial capital was shrouded by choking haze from uncontrolled forest and plantation fires nearby.

Kalimantan is a major island in Indonesia which has an abundance of oil palm plantations.

Senior politician Lukman Edy, representing Mr Joko’s campaign team, responded by explaining that what Mr Joko meant to say was that the current administration managed to reduce forest and plantation fires by introducing stricter law enforcement and prevention measures.

“During Jokowi’s tenure, forest fires have been handled quickly and the problem did not persist,” Mr Lukman argued, pointing out that during Mr Joko’s tenure the administration only witnessed one major fire in 2015, while previously such fires were annual events.

“We almost never have forest fires any more. Lately, there were hot spots emerging, but firefighting teams promptly handled them. Forest fires are unavoidable, but the government now is there to deal with them, so the problem does not drag on.”

Dr Drajad also took issue with the administration’s claim of having constructed 191,000km of village roads in the first four years of his five-year term, a figure Mr Dradjad found “impossible” – saying that such a distance was almost five times Earth’s equatorial circumference.

Mr Lukman explained that the village roads are not built in straight lines and therefore such a comparison could not be drawn.

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